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Village girls in Rajasthan get a leg-up

By Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Residential balika shikshan shivirs (girls’ education camps), set up by the Society to Uplift Rural Economy in Rajasthan’s Barmer district, encourage girls to get away from everyday chores in the home and pursue their education

Rajasthan’s Barmer district, girls’ education

In Rajasthan’s Barmer district, girls’ education is a low priority for most local families. Although they are integral to the family economy -- they help manage households, take care of younger siblings, and work in agriculture and animal husbandry -- girls have traditionally never been allowed to study.  

In the last decade, however, interventions initiated by the Society to Uplift Rural Economy (SURE) have brought about changes.  

“I am studying and will give the Class X exam this year,” says 17-year-old Keku from Bhalgaon village. Keku lives on the SURE rural campus, in Binjrad, for seven months, studying for the exam. She is one of 25 girls attending the residential balika shikshan shivir (girls’ education camp); three will give the Class X exam, the others will sit for the Class VIII exam. 

In Bhalgaon village, 60 km away, Keku’s mother Sita Devi, 50, says: “I want her to study as much as she can. Her father will not stop her. Her elder sisters studied only up to Class V. Now they are married.”  

Keku, a keen student, studied up to Class VIII in the village school but, since there was no high school in or near Bhalgaon, was forced to drop out. When the family heard about the balika shikshan shivir, they decided to explore the option.  

They are happy with Keku’s progress. Sita Devi says: “My daughter studies very hard. If we can find a way, we would like her to study further.”  

Keku’s parents are unusually progressive. For many girls it is still a struggle to convince parents to let them study at all.  

Few villages in this remote desert district, with its far-flung settlements, have access to schooling beyond the primary, or at the most middle stage.  

SURE’s residential camps fulfil a real need. The organisation has been holding balika shikshan shivirs since 2000, mostly to coach girls up to Class V. Field worker Daulat Sharma recalls: “SURE went from home to home talking to parents. Gradually they agreed.” In most cases the girls were extremely keen to study -- that was a major motivating force for their parents!  

But, since girls perform essential everyday tasks at home, sparing them for several months entails a palpable sacrifice. Mothers have to work much harder, yet they are the foremost supporters of their children’s education. As Sita Devi says: “My daughter should have a better life than mine!” Moreover, education up to Class VIII/X qualifies girls for employment in the village, as anganwadi workers (frontline workers in the Integrated Child Development Scheme), nurses, or mates in state employment programmes.  

Lata Kacchwaha, 54, SURE’s vice-president, says: “When the girls stay with us for a balika shikshan shivir, we set them a rigorous study schedule. They literally work from early morning to late night, with only brief breaks for meals and half a day off in the week for sports. We have no option because they have to learn several years’ course work within a few months!” SURE appoints and trains teachers so that they are able to meet the challenge of teaching at an accelerated pace.  

At the schools, the girls study, sing, and enjoy the time away from daily chores. Through these residential camps, over 1,000 girls have been enabled to study up to various levels. 

In several villages, SURE has initiated kishori manchs (adolescent girls’ groups). At the kishori manch, girls learn about health and hygiene, and discuss issues close to their hearts. For instance, Shanta, 17, who has studied up to Class VIII, wants to know whether she can join the police. Others want to become nurses or teachers. However, their parents are not keen to send them away for further studies. Instead, many are being prepared for marriage. Says Uma Kunwar, field organiser: “We are helping make a space for these girls where they can learn more about themselves. But a lot more still has to change.” 

Contact: Society to Uplift Rural Economy (SURE)
               PO Box 29
               Gurudwara Road 
               Email:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

(Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based writer)  

InfoChange News & Features, March 2009