UDAIPUR, India, 11 October 2013 – Ten-year-old, Khushi Mena and her friends are happily going through their lessons in their school located in the remote village of Kitoda, Udaipur district, in northern Indian state of Rajasthan. Watching them from a distance, with a great sense of pride, is the panchayat coordinator, Silwans Patel, and other community leaders and village-level workers.
If it were not for Silwans and other community leaders, girls like Khushi would have dropped out of the school to look after their younger siblings, herd sheep and work on cotton fields in neighbouring states.
Rajasthan is India’s largest state in terms of geographical area and the student dropout rates continue to be higher than the national average as large number of children are engaged in paid labour (particularly in the cotton industry). In 2010, close to 1.2 million children in the state were out of school, 0.7 million were girls.
A large percentage of these out of school children are from the tribal and hard-to-reach districts of Banswara, Dungarpur and Udaipur, which have consistently lagged behind on vital social development indicators.
For the last six years, Silwans has been working with determination towards ensuring that every child, particularly girls, stay in school and complete their elementary education. Luckily, Silwans is not alone in this mission. Community leaders and village-level workers in ten panchayats of Udaipur are also working on the same.
With the support of the Government of Rajasthan and UNICEF, the community leaders and village-level workers have ensured that nearly 4,000 out-of-school children are back in school. More than 40 percent of them are girls like Khushi.
In these areas, the number of children attending school has increased from 40 percent in 2008 to over 90 per cent, at present. Also, the number of students who have remained in school between 6-14 years has gone up by 35-40 per cent since 2008.
Journey started in 2008 - Getting transport to their door steps
This spurt in the enrolment rate would have been unthinkable in 2008 when less than half the number of children aged 6-14 years attended school in eight panchayats of Girwa, Sarada and Kherwada blocks in Udapiur. The villages, with a predominant tribal population of Bhils, are scattered over a mountainous terrain and are largely inaccessible due to poor connectivity attributed to a lack of basic public transport services.
Apart from unsafe terrain, poverty and illiteracy, migration to neighboring cities for labour was a major reason why children didn’t attend schools. The families put the children to work in marble mines, construction sites, restaurants and picking cotton.
“The schools are spread across forests and streams, home to wild animals. This made most parents apprehensive of sending their children, particularly girls, to school and it contributed to the drop-out rate,” says Marjorie Aziz, secretary of Unnati Sanstha, an NGO supported by UNICEF that has been working with the community to help children get back to school.
After multi-stakeholder deliberations, it was decided that transport facilities for children of these areas would ease their access to school and improve their participation in education.
The transport service started in 2008 and was availed by approximately 700 children like Khushi. The attendance rates, which were as low as 10-20 per cent before the transport service was provided, increased by 80 per cent in 2013. “The initiative became so popular in 2008 that the state government later adopted it,” says Marjorie.
Getting parents motivated to send children to school
Providing transport to get the children back to school and stay in the school was just a small part of the problem. “The most difficult part was to change the attitude of parents to send their children, particularly the girls, to school,” says Silwans Patel.
To address this issue, he has been using innovative methods to convey the message of staying in school, including singing songs to parents and writingpoems for children to promote education in his village in Udaipur.
“Parents engaged as laborers are tired after a day's work and they don't mind listening to a song about the merits of education at the end of the day. We work within the community and pass on our message on the importance of educating girls through our songs and poems,” he adds.
Night meetings were organised so that both the parents could participate in the discussions. “We ask the families not to send children to work in the marble mines, construction sites and cotton fields. Through day and night meetings with parents, bhajan mandalis (prayer groups), we have reaped rich dividends,” he states.
Rameshchandra Mena, father of four and member of the School Management Committee (SMC) in Amarpura primary school has been a part of these night meetings with the community and is convinced that if his children study, they will get better jobs. “They won't have to work as a laborer like me. They will have a better future,” he states.
Panchayat involvement increases accountability of parents and teachers
As an important part of the initiative, NGOs and community workers joined hands with local governance structures like the panchayat to set up monitoring mechanisms and to track the performance of children in schools. “Panchayats have a legal authority to institutionalise back-up structures and have ended up becoming protection mechanisms in villages which keep children in school,” says Jitendra, Education Officer with UNICEF in Rajasthan.
Baalal, who is a Ward Panch in Amarpura village says that the Panchayat and the School Management Committee have a mechanism track the attendance of teachers and students. “Teachers' performance is assessed in their monthly meetings and feedback is provided,” Baalal informs.
The Right to Education Act 2009 seeks greater involvement of communities in school development and management and mandates the establishment of a School Management Committee (SMC) for all schools with parents comprising 75 per cent of the members. Effective coordination of School Management Committee (SMC) members with Panchayat also serves as a pressure tactic on the parents.
Out-of-the-box solution by teachers
Principal Laxmi Joshi, who has been teaching for 29 years, offers incentives to students who show up on time or are regular to school.
“I know some children, especially girls, don't have pens. So we give them pens as a prize and it works wonders with these children. During our prayer sessions, we felicitate them so that they remain motivated. We also talk to those parents whose children often miss schools.”
Khushi’s school mate, Shaama is delighted to be in school. Shaama had dropped out of school after her family moved from another village a few months ago. “I love studying and thanks to community mobilisers like Nani bai. I am back in school and I love it here. I will complete my education, come what may,” says Shaama flanked with her siblings.
The concerted efforts and the support of the community workers, panchayats, teachers, principals and non-government organisations have ensured girls like Shaama and Khushi have a bright future ahead of them.
“But we have a long way to go. We have to expand our reach,” signs an optimistic Silwans.