Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh: Situated in a remote village of Barabanki district of Uttar Pradesh, Balika Vidyalaya, an all-girls school, is a true example of how a rich harvest of enlightenment can be reaped through vision and determination. Haven for some 272 odd girls, studying in standards sixth to tenth, these innocent minds would have remained wrapped in the cloak of illiteracy and darkness had they not enrolled in Pehla Kadam (First Step) – the one year residential bridge education camp.
Designed for girls who have missed out on primary education, the camp, supported by UNICEF, the State Government, local NGO and parents ensures completion of five years of quality primary education for girls between 10 to 14 years of age, in one year. This qualifies the girls to be admitted directly into the sixth standard in any other school.
Initiated in 2001, the experiment has been a resounding success. Once on the road to empowerment, these girls have simply not looked back. Due to social pressures many of them tie the nuptial knot, but a majority manage to convince their elders that they will go to their husband’s houses only after completing their studies.
So it is not uncommon to find rows of teenage brides in this school. Red vermillion shines brightly in their hair parting, red glass bangles adorn their hands and part of their head is covered by their long saree veils. But they sit on the school benches holding fast not just onto their text books but also their dreams.
While nearly 20 per cent of the students get married even before reaching class VIII, statistics indicate that 50 per cent still take the class X (secondary) examination.
Thirteen year old Gudiya Devi is one such shining example from a state which has a female literacy rate of 42.2 percent (Census 2001).
Although Gudiya could also not resist family pressure and was married off two years ago like her two elder sisters, she took a vow of going to her married home only after completing her secondary schooling. Her husband Virendra Kumar respected her decision. Himself a high school graduate, Virendra says, “She can take her time and study as much as she wants.” Gudiya smiles coyly, her eyes shining with gratitude for Virendra.
Seema, Kumari, Beenu and Phoolmati, all students of class VIII, are best friends. Married four years ago like Gudiya they too are continuing their studies.
Dressed in a pair of blue denim jeans and top, Tarannum stands out in the crowd. Ecstatic that at the residential school she could fulfill her dream of learning English, she recites an English poem with child-like innocence just to prove her point.
Tarannum hails from a conservative Muslim family but escaped being married off early because she prevailed upon the family to let her take that all important first step towards empowerment – education. Although yet to chalk out her future plans, Tarannum is clear that she would like to take up “a job” once she completes her studies.
“Pehla Kadam was the first step towards self-confidence”, is how Poonam, one of the first batch of teachers of the residential school perceives the transformation.
Describing the initial days at the camp she says, “It was not easy. Most of the girls had never even stepped out of their house. They were fearful, home sick and unsure of themselves. But slowly things changed. Consoling each other, sharing our joys and sorrows we turned into one big family.”
For many girls the residential camp was a true chance of snatching back their fleeting childhood before mundane matrimony claimed them.
“The thrill of riding a bike, visiting a local bank and post office was an exhilarating experience and one we would never have otherwise enjoyed", says Basan Lallee, a married student of class nine.
“Tomorrow is ours”, “We have stepped out to conquer the world”: says the writings on the school walls. The writings do not sound hollow. A silent revolution is on. In Barabanki, the thorny paths of illiteracy have already started giving way to smooth paths of education and progress.