By Arun Anand
Babina, Jhansi, UP: They are the “real stars”, who attract crowds, applause and rave reviews for their achievements in the most remote of Uttar Pradesh’s villages. Perhaps also because they make almost everyone believe that dreams can come true.
Shabnam Ara, Madhuri Kumari and Sandhya Sherring are among the 15 Girl Stars chosen by UNICEF, whose struggles to educate themselves were screened on video by mobile theatres across UP.
After the project was launched on the 8th of May 2007 in New Delhi, three colourful trucks equipped with audio/video and public address systems were flagged off to Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
In UP, the stories of the girl stars reached thousands of villagers through three short films based on their lives. Aged between 17 and 30 years, these three girls belong to the marginalised sections of the society.
The films depict how they struggled against enormous economic and social odds but never lost heart. “That is what gives most of the ordinary rural folk tremendous hope and inspiration,” says Praveen Kumar, the project’s field coordinator, who has been traveling with the mobile theatre across four districts and 64 villages of UP since 11th May.
Praveen and his colleagues in the truck typically reach a village early in the morning. They make announcements and talk to the villagers inviting them to the “show”. Then in the centre of the village they erect a makeshift tent and as villagers start gathering - initially out of curiosity - Praveen and his team get to work with the screening of the videos.
The films are screened on a television with the help of a DVD player as they only have a small generator for the power supply. The show lasts a couple of hours.
Shabnam Ara grew up in Arhora village of Sonbhadra district, Uttar Pradesh. Presently, this 26-year-old gutsy woman is a small loans manager in Cashpor, a micro-finance organisation in Varanasi. When Shabnam was young, she dropped out of school when her father lost his job, but managed to complete her education by working part-time.
Shabnam learnt how to make carpets at home and managed to enroll herself back in school. She then heard about Cashpor, which was looking for women fieldworkers for its women clientele.
Shabnam was able to convince many women to take loans and change their lives. During this period, she was promoted three times. She studied at night to finish graduation and today, Shabnam is the branch manager of Cashpor, where she supervises an office of seven men.
Madhuri Kumari has almost a similar story though in a different setting. She is today the Pradhan (Chief) of Fakirpuri village, Bahraich District. But when she was young she had to struggle as the only girl in a class of 26 boys.
Madhuri used to walk six kilometers through a thick forest all by herself to reach school. As she grew up, she wanted to continue her schooling though her father was opposed to it. She did odd jobs for her neighbours to pay for her school supplies.
Soon, with the money she had saved, she opened a small grocery shop. She even managed to earn enough to build her own house. Madhuri was so helpful that people soon asked her to be their leader.
When Madhuri stood for elections and emerged victorious, she was only 21 years old. For the past five years, she has been busy building roads, installing a drainage system in the village, adding new classrooms to the government school and encouraging children in her village to go to school.
Sandhya Sherring, who runs a computer training centre, says, “education is the foundation that makes you a strong pillar. You can do anything – anything at all – if you are educated.”
Sandhya too dropped out of school when her father lost his job. After completing her education, she failed to find a decent job and consequently enrolled in a computer institute. After passing out she opened her own institute with a bank loan.
“We can relate to them as these girls are from the villages of UP. They are like us but they have made it. We would like our children to be like that. These films make us believe that our children can also do this,” says Omkar Singh of village Simwara, Jhansi.
The mobile theatre screened these films in 28 villages of Jhansi district over a period of two weeks. Earlier the roadshow evoked enthusiastic response in dozens of villages in Varanasi and Bahraich districts. From Jhansi, the mobile theatre moved on to Lalitpur where its six-week journey in UP will come to an end.