“We will eat half a chapati, to afford studying in a school,” a group of young girls scream in unison, as they rally through the labyrinthine alleys of two villages, Shahpur Khalwapatti and Mishroli, in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh.
Led by four girls—Rinku Kumari, Nisha, Puneeta and Pinky Kumari—this school-enrollment movement of sorts has brought about a sea change in a region that is historically known to have been suffering from acute poverty and gender-based discrimination.
Supported by a local NGO—Samudaik Kalyan Evam Vikas Sansthan (Community Welfare and Development Society) also known as SKVS—these young volunteers are striving to take control of their future and empower the young generation by advocating for an equal opportunity of education. Thanks to their efforts, Kushinagar, a place that was considered one of the most backward regions in India, is now emerging as a model example of community-led social transformation.
Fighting discrimination, one student at a time
“The majority of the population in this region comes from a tribal Musahar community. Extremely marginalised, this community has been suffering for decades. They don’t have any land to cultivate or much education to allow other opportunities. Even the land on which their houses are built do not belong to them. Historically known to be the ‘rat-catching’ community, they are known to survive on a diet of rats because of the acute level of poverty. This has also contributed in the marginalisation and discrimination against the community,” says Amarnath, a local social worker with over a decade of ground experience in this area.
He along with SKVS began working towards empowering the Musahar community in 2009. But soon their findings led them to a conclusion that along with caste-based discrimination the region was also plagued with gender-based discrimination and low-literacy, both of which contributed to their poor socio-economic status.
He adds that almost 5 years ago, SKVS found that out of an approximate population of 40,000 people in Kushinagar, only 4,000 had managed to study beyond Class 8. This discovery pushed for a consolidated effort to bring about grassroots change, thus ushering in the inception of a localised intervention to educate the youth, especially girls.
“Education and skill training are two of the ways adopted by SKVS to help them come out of the cycle of poverty and achieve social equality,” says Amarnath who works as the programme coordinator of SKVS. Led by seven Dalit women, this Kushinagar-based voluntary organisation has advocated various issues like land rights, women’s rights and child rights, as avenues to enable community development and empowerment.
School Chalo Abhiyan
Today, young girls across Shahpur Khalwapatti and Mishroli villages look up to the Rinku, Nisha, Puneeta and Pinky as role models who fought against centuries-old social norms to ensure a better and more equal future for girls.
With SKVS at the helm, these girls formed two Kishori Sangathans or young women’s collective, and led the School Chalo Abhiyan that impacted hundreds of students across 10 villages of the region. While Puneeta and Nisha oversee operations in Shahpur Khalwapatti, Pinky and Rinku lead them in Mishroli.
During this campaign, the girls managed to identify a total of 216 student dropouts from the Musahar community. While 103 of them were boys, the majority of 113 were girls.
Speaking about the disparity Amarnath says, “The reason why more girls tend to drop out is either because of getting married at a very young age or house-work. So, we had to change their perspective by showing them how both boys and girls can be successful professionals and look after them in their old age. Usually, creating impact in the face of these challenges is a slow process requiring a lot of patience.”
But the girls managed this feat by convincing parents of the various benefits of educating their children, especially daughters. Owing to their efforts, they managed to garner participation of 407 girls under the two collectives, who in turn mobilised youth to initiate change. Together they were successful in directly and indirectly sensitising 1,500 families across 10 villages and inspired 166 children with no access to education to be finally enrolled in a school.
“Education is something we need in every single thing we do and illiteracy is a lack that we all need to overcome,” concludes Puneeta, who heads the Shahpur Khalwapatti’s Kishori Sangathan as the chairperson.
Edited by Yoshita Rao