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Have cycle, will study

By V Radhika

Sometimes solutions to problems as grave as female illiteracy can be so simple. Providing a humble bicycle to girls in Maharashtra's villages has allowed students who would normally drop out after Class VIII to go on to finish high school. The project has been initiated by Ashta No Kai (ANK), Pune

Their story was all set to unfold along the age-old script written for older girls in these villages: once they completed their Class VIII education in the village school, they would discontinue their studies to help their families, and wait to get married. After all, no parent was going to send their young daughter to a far-flung school when there were no transport facilities.

But the humble bicycle has brought a twist to the story in the villages nestled in Shirur taluka of Maharashtra state's Pune district.

Varsha Darode's broad smile does not dim despite having biked nearly two kilometres with her friend on the pillion. "Earlier it would take us almost 45 minutes to walk to school and our parents were anxious till we returned home. But now they are not worried because we reach home fast and also they know that each of us is accompanied by another girl," says this Class 9 student.

For Shalan Bhalerao, the cycle is not just a means of transport to school, but a weapon in her fight for education. After all, it was the cycle that conquered her parents' resistance to continuing her education. "They were not prepared to send me to the school because it was far away and there was no transport. They did not want me to walk to school everyday. But this bicycle has changed all that," she says with a shy smile. Many girls like Varsha and Shalan are now pedalling between two and five kilometres to attend high school.

The architect of this transformation is the Bicycle Bank, set up by a Pune-based NGO, Ashta No Kai (ANK), that is working for rural women's literacy, health and development in 10 villages in Shirur taluka. This Japanese name translates into English as 'for a better future'. The journey of Ashta No Kai began with a simple statistic: that 61 per cent women in India are illiterate. "ANK was born to bring hope, strength and a vision of empowerment to marginalised rural women in India," says Armene Modi, founder-chairperson of ANK.

The organisation has been working with women since 1998 and the bicycle bank idea germinated last year as a way to curb the rate of school dropouts among girls. There are presently only five high schools in the 10 project area villages that ANK is working in. According to ANK members, lack of transport facilities, as well as bad and lonely roads, have prevented many parents in distant villages from sending their daughters to pursue high school education.

The trigger, according to Modi, was a request ANK received last July from a girl student in a village; she wanted to attend high school but couldn't for lack of transport. "By the time we were able to arrange a bicycle for her, the school authorities refused to accept her as the term had already begun. We just did not want such a thing to happen again."

The problem is not only that the girls stop going to school, but they are also married off early. According to Modi, recent statistics for Maharashtra state indicate that approximately 38 per cent rural girls get married around the age of 16. "Our experience in our target villages has proved this fact to be true."

Geeta Phatak, a project officer with ANK, notes, "Once they discontinue their studies and get married many of them gradually forget to read and write, thereby lapsing into illiteracy. We found this while running literacy classes for women where many of them said they had gone to school but because they dropped out, they had forgotten the alphabet as they simply got out of the habit of reading and writing. But if a girl studies at least up to Class 10 this will not happen."

When ANK engaged in dialogue with village women over this issue, the latter indicated their willingness to permit their daughters to attend high school provided transport and security were assured.

The project involves providing bicycles to all girls who complete Class 7 in a village where there is no high school. Each bicycle is shared between two girls who also share the riding of it each way as well as its maintenance. The idea of allotting one bicycle to two girls is that parents concerned about their daughter's safety would be reassured if a group of girls travel together in this manner even if it is to a distant village high school.

ANK charges a deposit of Rs 150 per bicycle for three years which is to be refunded after they finish Class 10. However, this deposit was waived for Balutai Shinde as her parents could not afford the amount. She secured 72 per cent marks in her annual examination and was on the verge of discontinuing her studies. ANK wanted to give her an incentive to pursue her education.

Parents' willingness to send their daughters by bicycles did waver when they were asked to pay the deposit. But the organisation was insistent because it was felt that people do not respect freebies, says Phatak. This stand, coupled with the staff's relentless efforts to convince parents, paid off. And it was just a matter of time before girls who did not know how to cycle learnt from their friends.

As these girls wheel their way to their schools, they are not only happy about realising their dreams of pursuing higher education but are also setting an example for other girls in their village. In Sone Sangvi village, when one girl started biking to school, her friend was inspired -- she persuaded both their parents so that the two girls could share the bike.

Presently, ANK has been able to provide bicycles for 17 students. "We have been promised another six. Eleven more girls are waiting to receive bikes," says Modi. According to ANK field staff, the demand for bikes is growing by the day from girls who wish to join their friends to pedal to school -- and towards a brighter future.

Ashta no Kai (ANK) may be contacted at:
PO Box No 221, GPO Main,
PUNE 411 001.
Telefax: 91-81-20-634-4592

Women's Feature Service, October 2002