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MP's education entrepreneurs

By Deepti Priya Mehrotra

In rural Madhya Pradesh, experiments are afoot to draw girls into the ambit of education. These are spearheaded by gutsy determined local women who have a burning desire to open up new avenues and opportunities for young women

In rural Madhya Pradesh, experiments are afoot to draw girls into the ambit of education. Shabana Bano Rizvi, 29, block panchayat member, Singodi block, Chhindwara district, campaigns intensively to motivate dropouts to sit for the Class X exam. She says: “Many girls are forced to drop out after middle school due to poverty, absence of a school close by, pressures of housework, and social taboos against mobility of adolescent girls. I myself was forced to leave school in the middle of Class X, when I was married off by my father, against my will. My mother always supported me. Surprisingly, my marital family is supportive, though poor. We have to struggle to work and bring up our daughter. Still, I stood for elections because I wanted to do something for women. I am the first person in my family to stand for election. My father-in-law is my biggest supporter.

“When I won the (reserved) seat, I seized the opportunity to promote girls’ education. I went from home to home, persuading parents to let their girls study.”

Rizvi even raised funds for the fees, in the case of very poor families. Finally, 16 girls appeared for their Class X exams and all have cleared them. Some want to study further (Rizvi is trying to arrange loans to pay for those who cannot afford to do so), and some are keen to begin self-employment ventures, so she is setting up linkages for support schemes for entrepreneurs. 

Rizvi was one of the 16 students who cleared the Class X exam in 2008 -- 15 years after she left school! Now she is preparing for Class XII. Bubbling with enthusiasm, she says: “My daughter is three years old. She will study as much as she wants to!” Earlier, her husband would accompany her everywhere as she was nervous about travelling alone. “Now I can go by myself. I am confident,” she says.

Rizvi values her position of power because she is able to make a difference to the lives of girls and women, in an extremely conservative society.

Meena Mehra, 43, ward panch of Raisalpur gram panchayat, Hoshangabad district, is unlettered. It’s this fact that’s driven her to take up the issue of schooling as a mission. She says: “In our panchayat there is no high school. Children who study up to Class V have nowhere to go after that. Of around 500 students passing Class VIII, about 350 do not study further. Girls do not travel distances to study. I took up this issue and held meetings with parents in four villages. They were enthusiastic about getting a high school opened in the area.” Mehra lobbied within the panchayat, got resolutions passed on the issue, and sent them to the block- and district-level education departments. Meanwhile, the parents’ committee took out a rally to the district education office.  

During the campaign, Mehra and several others went to meet the district collector. She recalls: “He wouldn’t listen to us and referred us to someone junior. I told him: ‘If you are the collector of this district, then I am the panch of my ward. Your work is to listen to me!’” The collector did listen then; he even told her to come to him with any other problems she may have in her constituency! Finally Mehra managed to get a school sanctioned and is working hard to see it up and running as soon as possible.

Durgabai Tekam, 32, sarpanch of Partapur gram panchayat, Seoni district, also worked hard to get a high school in her area. She says: “Girls dropped out after Class VIII because there was no high school. Boys managed to walk 10 km to the nearest high school, but it was a severe obstacle for girls.” Tekam surveyed the dropouts and identified 179 girls in the 12 villages of the panchayat who wanted to study further and had the consent of their parents. She motivated all 12 gram sabhas (village citizens’ bodies) to pass resolutions for the opening of a high school in the panchayat. Meanwhile, until a school is sanctioned, some 20 girls are preparing to sit for the Class X exam through open school.

Tekam managed to complete Class X before her marriage, and, by example, is able to inspire girls and their families about the value of education. Being a dalit, elected to a scheduled caste reserved seat, her campaign is particularly significant in terms of empowerment of dalit girls/women.  

Sheetala Singh, 33, block panchayat member, Rampur Baghelan block, district Satna, is working to motivate dropout girls to sit for the Class X exam as private candidates. She has studied up to Class X, and values her education immensely. She wants to bring this opportunity to the doors of every girl in the region. She says: “The most difficult part is to motivate parents and families. Once they agree, it is easy to get the girls to study. They invariably work hard and do well.”  

Singh adds that a little support for fees goes a long way. Government schemes providing incentives for girl students, including scholarships and bicycles, are extremely helpful in furthering the cause of girls’ education in rural areas. 

Rizvi, Mehra, Tekam and Singh were all given small fellowships by an NGO, Aagaz Academy, to help them realise their dream of promoting girls’ education. Indira Pancholi of Aagaz Academy says: “These women have achieved tremendous results in a short time. The reason is their own intense motivation to improve the lives of girls.”   

Contact: Aagaz Academy  
              Prayas Campus
              Chaurai Road  Amarwara
              Chhindwara district
              Madhya Pradesh 4802211 
              Tel: +91 9329274901/ 07167-287255 

(Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based writer)

InfoChange News & Features, March 2009