Lalita taking a karate class.
Imagine living in a hut that even a five-year-old child would have to bend to enter.
Imagine beginning each day with dim prospects of finding work and ending it by going to sleep hungry. Imagine fishing out snails from floodwaters as the only source of food during the monsoon months.
For 16-year-old Lalita and her community, living in a remote village in the northern state of Bihar, all this is for real. But despite such odds and furious attempts by the family to stifle her desire to study, Lalita today is the only educated girl in her community, due to support from the UNICEF.
She is not only a role model for her own family, but also for other girls and their parents in her community. “I have suffered deprivation all my life, I want to help other girls,” she says. “I want all girls in the world to be literate, parents not discriminate between the male and female child and encourage girls to attend school.”
Until two years ago, Lalita used to spend her day doing household chores, cutting grass and fetching firewood. But all that changed when she got the opportunity to attend a Jag Jagi Kendra or ‘wake up’ centre.
A new dawn
In about eight months, she reached Class Five. She then continued her education at the Mahila Shiksan Kendra, a boarding school for semi-literate students. The school provides, in the span of eight months, a basic education in maths, painting, language skills and vocational training. Lalita attended karate lessons there and won her brown belt. She now teaches karate to other girls attending these special schools.
Bihar is one of the poorest states in India, with a population of over 80 million, more than half of whom are not literate. Literacy amongst women is especially low, at 34 per cent. Sitamarhi, Lalita’s home district, accounts for one of the state’s lowest female literacy rates, with only 1 in 4 women being literate.
UNICEF played a crucial role in the initiation of the Bihar education programme, which now covers over 2,000 villages. It began in 1989 as a partnership between the central government, the state government and UNICEF. Mahila Samakhya, involved until then only in developmental work, also became a partner in the education programme.
The challenging situation in Bihar prompted UNICEF to begin one of its key initiatives in the education sector. Even though the programme has now been expanded with the help of World Bank funds, UNICEF continues to play a significant role in decision making as well as in training programmes.
The Mahila Shikshan Kendra started by Mahila Samakhya are now benefiting many more girls like Lalita across the state. The Mahila Shikhsan Kendras, while imparting education, also provide girls with empowering skills.
Lalita, unlike most other girls in her community, is not shy any more. “Before I started studying and going to school, I never had the confidence to speak to any adult, or go out and meet anybody. I hadn‘t even seen another village or district or town,” she says.
Blazing a trail
Lalita’s newfound confidence and ability to earn a living has sparked off a process of change. Her younger sister, Punita, now attends an education centre, without having to fight with her family. Others in the community too are keen to follow Lalita’s example. Roopa Kumari, an adolescent girl says, “After seeing Lalita, all the girls here have started going to the centre.” This is quite a change from the time Lalita struggled to gain access to education.
One of the first people to oppose Lalita was her mother. She was furious and unable to understand why a girl would want to be educated. But Lalita was determined. She endured stern punishments, including beatings, from her family members who did all they could to stop her from attending classes.
The process of making girls’ education available was initiated by a field worker of the Mahila Samakhya, who helped set up a women’s group in Lalita’s village. But the first time Lalita learnt that education was within reach was when a saheli’, a woman worker from the Mahila Samakhya , came knocking at their door and asked all girls to enrol at the Jag Jagi Kendra. Even though her parents refused, Lalita found a way of sneaking off to attend classes, with help from the village saheli.
Lalita watching her students in action.
Once Lalita learnt to write her name, she did not wait for approval from her parents to enrol for the next session. “When I wrote my name, everyone was surprised, and so many more wanted to be able to write,” says Lalita.
Her mother too was taken aback but for the first time showed signs of relenting. “The saheli explained to my mother that if I attended school I would be able to work even more efficiently for the household.” The Jag Jagi Kendra also taught Lalita the importance of hygiene and cleanliness. She started boiling water in the house and insisted that all food be properly covered.
The next obstacle Lalita faced was to obtain her parents’ permission to attend the residential centre for girls in Muzaffarpur, a good ten-hour drive away. This time her father relented and let her go.
Confident and competent
The eight months she spent at this centre changed Lalita’s life. She showed great promise as a karate student and soon emerged at the top of her class. This prompted the supervisors at the centre to send her for higher levels of training to another district, Hazaribagh.
Lalita’s first salary brought tears to her father’s eyes. “Even my sons have not done this,” he says. Her father has never earned more than 300 to 400 Rupees a month. Nor, as Lalita says, has he travelled to the places that she has seen in her young life. “Earlier I couldn’t talk before anybody,” says Lalita. “I had never stepped out alone. Now I can even fight.”
Karate has given Lalita a newfound sense of confidence. She is no longer scared of the village boys, who are used to teasing the village girls. In fact, one day, when she was returning alone from her centre in Sitamarhi, she was accosted by some of these boys, who wanted to teach her a lesson for being so daring. Her first impulse was to run. But she realised she had to fight. She dealt them a couple of sharp blows – leaving them both stunned and asking for forgiveness.
Karate has transformed this simple village girl. Apart from serving as self-defence, it is a skill she is now passing on with a sense of inspiration to several other adolescent girls. Her mother is now reluctant to admit that she had at any time opposed her daughter’s education.
On being reminded by Lalita, she hides her face in embarrassment and explains that her earlier reluctance had to do with being unaware of the value of education in one’s life. Now, she is so proud of Lalita that she resents the idea of marrying her to a less educated boy.