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Rajasthan’s Girls Fight for a Chance to Resume Their Education

Girls from rural Rajasthan set up a campaign to help them return to school after the pandemic. (Pic Madhav Sharma)

Girls from rural Rajasthan set up a campaign to help them return to school after the pandemic. (Pic Madhav Sharma)

Over 1,500 girls from Karauli in rural Rajasthan launched a campaign urging the state government to help them go back to school.

The pandemic has directly affected millions of lives in the country and the lockdown has cost many their livelihoods. For Priyanka Bairwa, a 19-year-old girl who lives in Sapotra town in the Karauli district of Rajasthan, the lockdown not only took away her family’s source of income but also her dreams of pursuing higher education. But soon, she realised she wasn’t the only girl whose dreams were getting shattered. She met many like her, who were unable to continue their education and were now being forced into marriage.

Priyanka, and a few others, started a campaign to raise awareness about these issues and put pressure on their elders to help ensure all girls have the right to education. The campaign, which started in October 2020 with 10 girls in one district is today, a state-wide campaign involving six districts and over 1,500 girls. Their demands for scholarships and support for higher education have also been sent to the government of Rajasthan and the girls hope for a change in the right direction.

Because of the pandemic, 19-year-old Priyanka Bairwa from Sapotra in Karauli, Rajasthan was facing the prospect of having to discontinue her education and get married. But she fought back. (Pic Madhav Sharma)

Priyanka’s story

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Since Priyanka’s father, Madanlal, was suffering from tuberculosis, the responsibility of providing for the family rested primarily on her mother, Urmila and the older kids. Urmila worked as domestic help and Priyanka would often help her mother with the chores in different homes; that is until the first lockdown was announced, more than a year ago. The lockdown meant that Urmila and Priyanka could no longer work in other homes and they soon lost their livelihood. Much to her disappointment, Priyanka, who was pursuing her Bachelor of Arts degree, was also unable to continue her studies, due to limited means. Being the oldest girl in the house, soon there were talks of arranging her marriage.

But Priyanka vehemently opposed the idea. “Corona destroyed the dreams of thousands of poor girls like me. Studies came to a halt and there was no work outside, so the family started talking about marriage. Friends and relatives put a lot of pressure on me to get married, but I stood my ground and opposed it,” she said.

Early marriage or child marriage is very common in the rural regions of Rajasthan. According to AMIED (Alwar Mewar Institute of Education and Development), a non-profit organization working in the rural areas of Rajasthan, every second girl in Karauli district is married off before she reaches the age of 18. And the situation only got worse in the pandemic, as the education of girls came to a halt and girls began to be viewed as a burden on families.

Priyanka soon realised that many young girls were being married off without their consent. “I realised many girls in Sopotra would have dropped out of studies and they may be getting pressured into marriage. I met a few other girls and soon a group of 10 girls was formed,” reminisces Priyanka. With 10 girls, Priyanka felt she could now work to ensure girls from her area got a chance to study and avoid marriage. “We went from village to village in Sapotra tehsil on foot and we met many girls who were facing similar situations at home. We persuaded them to join us and we all decided to work together to prevent girls from getting married at an early age and help them continue their education,” said Priyanka with pride.

The beginning of a movement

Priyanka’s mother was engaged in cleaning work at the AMIED office in Sapotra. “I knew that AMIED works for education and girl’s education was one of their primary objectives. I, hence, approached them and they agreed to help us,” states Priyanka. The organisation soon imparted training on health and education to the ten girls.

But Priyanka’s parents were afraid. Initially, they stopped her from venturing out too much as they believed the current society is not safe for girls to travel alone. Many parents had similar fears and in addition, most of the villagers felt that no one would pay heed to the demands of a few young girls. But thankfully, AMIED stepped in and convinced many parents to allow their daughters to participate in the campaign. They said, if it succeeds, then girls’ education could be free in the future. After much convincing, some parents, including Priyanka’s, gave their consent and the girls continued their campaign.

Vinita Meena was among the early participants in the movement and went about recruiting girls from neighbouring villages to support their cause. (Pic Madhav Sharma)

Vinita Meena, a resident of Gokulpur village in Sapotra tehsil, is today one of the leaders campaigning for the cause. During the lockdown, Vinita’s housemates were considering marrying her off. But Vinita opposed the marriage and soon joined Priyanka in the campaign. “The girls we talked to had two things in common. First, the pressure to get married and second, the fear of dropping out of school. Poverty, negligible participation in online classes, lack of awareness and lack of schools that provide education after standard 8 are the main reasons for dropping out of school,” says Vinita.

Talking about the support they received from AMIED, Vinita says, “The AMIED institute gave counselling and training to the 10 girls. We then realised that just 10 girls will not work. That is why we selected two girls from each village in the neighbouring 50 villages as leaders who can lead the campaign. We were now 100 girls campaigning for the cause,” says Vinita.

The group leaders of the villages chalked out a plan of action and thus the foundation of the Dalit-Adivasi Backward Class Kishori Shiksha Abhiyan was laid. Noor Mohammed, the director of AMEID explains, “The campaign was named Dalit-Adivasi Backward Class Kishori Shiksha Abhiyan as the impact of the lockdown was most felt by the girls belonging to Dalit and Adivasi communities. They did not have smartphones for online classes. Thousands of girls from standards 9 to 12 were also afraid of being dropped out. This group of 10 girls is supported by our organization as their mentor.”

Gaining traction

In collaboration with AMIED, the girls now held regular meetings in the villages with other girls and their families. They made a list of demands which included timely scholarship for studies and free education up to class 12. Along with this, a demand was made to give a one-time scholarship of Rs 5,000 to those entering college, which should be paid all at once, so as to meet the requirements of buying books and other course material. This would ensure that girls not only have the opportunities to study up till class 12 but also pursue higher education, while also reducing the financial burden on their families. Currently, the scholarships offered by the government are paid in instalments and are not sufficient to cover all expenses.

To further intensify the campaign, the girls reached out to the political heads of the district including the Sarpanch (village headman), MLA and other stake-holders. Memorandums about the campaign were given to the sarpanches of the different villages. A group of girls also met the Labour Minister, Government of Rajasthan, Tikaram Jully. The minister’s positive attitude towards the campaign gave an impetus to it. Rajasthan’s Education Minister, Govind Singh Dodasara, also praised the campaign. They soon sent emails to Rajasthan Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot and the education minister, listing their demands.

On March 9 and 10 this year, AMIED organised a state-level conference in Jaipur to arrange a meeting of the girls associated with the campaign from different districts. It was named Rajasthan Rising Manch. Its aim was to understand the issues of girl child education, organisation, gender and caste discrimination among girls.

At the state-level conference in Jaipur, the girls came together to demand that state scholarships be made more effective so that more girls could continue with their education. (Pic Madhav Sharma)

A campaign to alleviate poverty

Priyanka, who is currently struggling to arrange two square meals a day for her family emphasises the importance of the campaign. “During the lockdown, it was with the help of our neighbours in Sapotra that we were able to feed ourselves. My brother, Tejaram (16) is a student of standard 11. He gets up at 4 am to study and distribute newspapers. Then he goes to work in the vegetable market, and then he goes to school. In the evening, he works to keep the goods inside. It’s a tough life for all of us,” she says. She believes educating girls may help lift many families out of poverty. “There are many families, like ours, that are struggling to make ends meet. If we girls become something by studying, then it will be good for our family as well as the society, at large. I also want to do good for my society. That is why I dream of pursuing a B.Ed (Bachelor of Education) after graduation. So that I can become a teacher and teach girls who cannot get an education due to poverty or other circumstances.”

Varsha Bairwa, a standard 10 student who has been associated with the campaign since November last year, believes the success of this campaign can completely change the situation for girls in her village. “Girls in my village have to walk 2 km to school. That is why only one girl from the whole village goes to study besides me. People from the rest of the village taunt us while we go to school. That is why I wish this campaign is a success,” says Varsha.

(The author is a Jaipur-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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first published:June 16, 2021, 11:25 IST