Sonalatha, Village Volunteer, teaching young girls at the Bridge School Centre in Mugathi Village, Andhra Pradesh
Bridge school centres and girls collectives are reshaping the future of a generation in rural Andhra Pradesh
By Sohini Roychowdhury
KURNOOL DISTRICT, ANDHRA PRADESH, India — Walking into a small and dusty compound of a single-storey pale yellow building greets you with a low, persistent humming noise almost like a distant idling diesel engine. Soon an adult voice floats through the air and is quickly met with the chanting of children repeating.
As you go nearer, your eyes squint; trying to adjust to the sudden darkness from the harsh sunlight outside. A few seconds later you come face-to-face with a group of girls fidgeting in the summer heat whilst gazing eagerly at their teacher standing in front of a large blackboard. This is the Bridge School Centre in Mugathi Village, Nandavaram Mandal, Kurnool District.
Situation of girls
“A few years ago, this would have been a rare sight,” says Murali Krishna Madamanchi, Child Protection Officer in the UNICEF Office in the state of Andhra Pradesh. “The district of Kurnool is a dry and arid region, and the overall indicators for girls and women are poor. While the national female literacy rate stands at 52 per cent, in Kurnool it is only 41 per cent. The cottonseed farming in the area makes children, particularly girls, vulnerable. They drop out of school and begin working in the farms as early as nine years.”
Sonalatha, Village Volunteer, nods in agreement. “Poverty is the main reason that keeps girls out of school including the traditional perception that girls don’t need an education,” says Sonalatha. “But education is an inalienable right. I want my community to understand that,” she adds. She calls out to a shy, timid-looking girl, Nagamani, 14 years old. Behind her innocence lies a tragic reality.
“After my father died two years ago, my mother couldn’t afford to bear all the expenses at home. Relatives convinced my mother that marriage was the only solution. I was married to a man 10 years older than me, Andhraiah, an auto rickshaw driver in the nearby town,” says Nagamani.
“Soon after my marriage the beatings began. I was mentally and physically harassed by my husband. I tried running away a few times and even attempted suicide once. But each time he found me and burnt me with cigarette butts. He even accused me of having illicit relationships. I lived in constant fear,” a shadow crossing her face.
“Those were the darkest moments in my life,” says Nagamani. “After the first two attempts at escape, I ran away to my aunt’s home. But my husband brought me back home, stripped and beat me mercilessly. I had no place to run. By this time. I heard about the Balika Sangha (girls collective) in my village. I saw that as my only refuge. I immediately contacted the Village Volunteer,” she says pointing towards Sonalatha.
“I began attending Balika Sangha meetings. Eventually Sonalatha convinced the panchayat (Council of elected representatives in a village) and my family to send me back to school. I got admitted in a residential boarding school. I still get nightmares. But I’m aware of my rights today. I want to be a role model for other girls in my
Nagamani, 14 years, stands defiant against all odds
With a view to empower adolescent girls, stop the incidence of child marriage and eliminate child labour in the state, UNICEF with support from IKEA Social Initiative (IKEA SI), began supporting the Government of Andhra Pradesh, in the district of Kurnool in 2006 and Warangal since 2008.
Under the pilot initiative, an integrated community-based strategy involving government departments, village influencers, community groups and children was adopted. Bridge school centers were set up to help reintegrate girls into the formal school system.
The Balika Sanghas or girls collectives were formed to offer girls life skills classes that deal with a variety of topics, ranging from child marriage, child labour, reproductive health, sexual abuse to vocational awareness. They were sensitised on key gender and child rights issues, government and non-government schemes and how to access them.
Treading new frontiers
Village volunteers like Sonalatha are pushing the envelope in their communities. Silently yet assiduously they are bringing about a tangible change in rural India. “Balika Sanghas meet every fortnight. Apart from providing girls a safe place to meet, learn and have fun, it’s a great monitoring mechanism in the community. Reports of child labour or marriage are raised in these meetings.
With the help of the panchayat, we intervene and sensitise parents to stop child marriage or sending girls to work and to admit them in bridge school centres,” says Sonalatha. “The Balika Sanghas have made girls more confident. Initially, I remember they were afraid to venture out of their homes to attend a meeting. Today they are not afraid to speak.”
“I recall how the Mallis and other street plays on issues of gender inequality, girl child marriage and child labour were held in our village,” Nagamani adds. “Posters were plastered in prominent places and exhibitions held. We were very enthusiastic. We asked many questions about our rights and our health.”
“The Balika Sanghas have helped many girls realise their true potential,” says Sonalatha. “Gangamma, 15 years, from Jaleawadi village is another example. She was a former agricultural labourer. Her father stopped sending her to school. But after much persuasion, he agreed to let her attend the Balika Sangha meetings in the village. As a result, she participated in two Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) meetings in the district.
In those meetings, she expressed an interest to study. She was provided a scholarship to learn vocational courses in tailoring and stitching at a government institute. Her desire to study did not wane. She borrowed books and taught herself, sometimes into the wee hours of the night under a dim oil lamp. This year she cleared her Class X Board examinations. She is an inspiration to us all.”
A new way forward
“There is overwhelming evidence that a key driver to a secure and sustainable future is to ensure that girls receive the best possible education,” says Michel Saint-Lot, Chief of Field Office, UNICEF, Andhra Pradesh. “Lack of education not only compromises the lives of countless girls, but also jeopardises the future of the very societies in which they live.
UNICEF and IKEA Social Initiative are working together to ensure and deliver tangible benefits in child rights such as, health, education, and protection, for millions of children and women in India.”