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Full marks for changing lives

By Tarannum

Over 1,700 balika vidyalayas or residential schools for girls have been set up by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in educationally backward districts across 24 states. They teach not just the three Rs, but holistic health management, computer science and even disaster management

Man Ka Samay session

Every day, the lives of hundreds of adolescent girls belonging to the scheduled castes (SC), scheduled tribes (ST) and other backward classes (OBC) in Uttar Pradesh are changing for the better. And the change has been brought about by the advent of quality education, courtesy the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (KGBVs) -- residential schools set up by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Young women who could barely read or write until a few years ago can now converse fluently and confidently, dabble in creative writing, and use the computer.

The KGBV scheme was launched in July 2004 in educationally backward blocks of the country where female rural literacy levels are below the national average (46.13%) and where the gender gap in literacy is above the national average (21.67%). The scheme provides a minimum reservation of 75% of seats for girls belonging to SC, ST, OBC and minority communities. For the remaining 25%, priority is given to those living below the poverty line.

The scheme is operational in 24 states. As of January 10, 2008, 1,724 KGBVs were reported to be functional, with 123,511 girls enrolled across the country.

The schools are run or supported by local NGOs -- like Disha in Saharanpur, Shahswat Sansthan in Sitapur, and Manav Vikas Kendra in Gorakhpur -- or by Mahila Samakhya, an education support project for rural women under the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

student of KGBV dances during session

Amongst the 123-odd KGBVs across Uttar Pradesh, those run by Mahila Samakhya stand out for their achievements. Situated in districts like Mathura, Muzzafarnagar, Saharanpur, Sitapur, Balrampur, Shrawasti, Behraich, Gorakhpur, Mau, Chitrakoot, Allahabad, Varanasi, Jaunpur and Pratapgarh, the schools fulfil the norms relating to infrastructure, education and curriculum, with an emphasis on personality development. Interestingly, most of the institutions are not just looking to make the teenagers proficient at studies; they are grooming them to become confident young women and responsible citizens.

Girls in the 10-18 age-group are accepted, though there have been instances of 22-year-olds joining KGBVs. The girls are taught according to the curriculum set by the Uttar Pradesh State Board. Till last year they used to pass out from Class X, but this year onwards the schools have been extended till Class XII. At the end of the term the girls sit for the state-level board examination.

Fifteen-year-old Sapna dropped out of school around five years ago because of financial constraints. When she joined the KGBV in Sitapur district two years ago she could not even speak properly. Today, Sapna reads and writes perfectly and has learnt to sing. Rojina, 14, a student of the KGBV in Behraich district, experienced a similar transformation. Having run away from home rather than be married off, she reached the school and expressed a desire to study. The Mahila Samakhya team then met Rojina’s parents and convinced them to enrol her at the KGBV. A former school drop-out, Rojina is now in Class V doing her parents proud with her grades and excellent art work.

Ipsha Singh, the Mahila Samakhya coordinator in Sitapur, says: “When the girls enrol, they are shy introverts and do not even talk to one another. But slowly their desire to study and come into their own takes over and their personality undergoes a complete change. Most of the girls discover latent talents.”

Education has made a world of a difference to the lives of the young girls and has even initiated an attitudinal change in their parents. Heera, 17, who is a student at KGBV Gorakhpur, ran away from home and joined the school two years ago when her parents were insisting on getting her married. Now, as she is set to sit for her Class X exam, her father, Sangram Singh Rai, admits that his daughter’s decision to study was the right one. “Now, if nothing else, we will at least be able to find a better groom for her. Also, at the KGBV, my daughter has become more confident and healthier too,” he says with a smile.

Monitoring and improving the health of the girls is an important function of the KGBVs, and so health charts are prepared regularly for each child. Interestingly, a look at some of the charts indicates that after their enrolment in school not only have most girls gained weight but those suffering from nutritional deficiencies, such as a low haemoglobin level, have improved.

Reshma, 15, a student of KGBV Allahabad, had a haemoglobin count of around 6 (the ideal range is between 11 and 13 units) and weighed a mere 30 kg at the time of admission. Thanks to a sustained healthy diet at school she now weighs 46 kg and her haemoglobin count has reached 9. Meenakshi Singh, Mahila Samakhya coordinator, Allahabad, says: “We follow a diet chart prepared by experts, which ensures maximum nutrition at minimal costs. The menu has a wide variety of items prepared hygienically in our own kitchens.” Singh recalls how one of the girls refused to eat when she first joined. “She had never tasted dal (lentil) or rice topped with melted ghee (clarified butter). At her house they ate just once a day and, at times, had to even survive on water. When she got three regular meals she was scared, convinced that she would fall sick if she ate ‘too much’.” It took a lot of convincing on Singh’s part before the girl took to eating properly. She has now discovered she has a knack for cooking!

But it’s not just education and healthcare that the KGBVs concentrate on. Information technology (IT) and disaster management are also part of the curriculum. Dr Smriti Singh, programme officer at Mahila Samakhya, says: “We try to educate these girls, around 100 at each centre, in such a way that they can move with the times. And computer learning is an essential part of this approach. As part of their summer training, we teach them to work on computers. Most girls have never even seen a computer. But now they are slowly learning. In fact, some have expressed a desire to become graduates in computer science after passing out from the KGBVs.”

Mahila Samakhya has initiated a new disaster management training programme in their KGBVs, depending on relative region-specific natural disasters. For example, children in districts like Behraich, Balrampur and Shravasti will receive training in managing floods; those in Chitrakoot, Allahabad, Mau and Varanasi will be trained in groundwater and water management. Girls in the districts of western Uttar Pradesh will learn about rainwater harvesting. Dr Rashmi Sinha, state project director of Mahila Samakhya, explains: “We want these students to not just help themselves during disasters, but also others around them. The training will now become a regular affair at all our KGBVs.”

Women’s Feature Service, July 2008