Away from home, the tribal girls of Odisha are now educating themselves and dreaming big. Their new residential school is like a family which is enabling them to prepare for higher studies and a better life.
Till a few years ago, Suggi Mankadia was leading a very different life. The eldest of four siblings, the teenager who belongs to one of the most primitive tribal communities living in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, used to work from dawn till dusk helping out her mother in completing domestic chores and then sitting down to roll ‘beedis’ (country cigarettes) with her to augment the household income.
Never once had she thought that she would be able to step outside her home and get an opportunity to study in school. After all, there were not many in her community who had seen the inside of a classroom. From their parents’ home, where the girls were expected to do housework once they grew up, they went straight to their marital home where it was more or less the same, only with additional responsibilities and burdens.
Then one day, Santosh Sahoo, a social activist and community mobiliser, came to her home and spoke to her parents, both daily wagers, about sending the youngster to a special residential school in the area.
Although Suggi does admit that it was not easy to convince them to let her go off on her own, but when Sahoo told them about how the education was free and that she would eventually be able to earn a better living, they agreed.
“It was the best decision they took, one that has transformed my thinking and enabled me to hope for a brighter future. I now know that illiteracy can only limit one’s horizons. My parents could never have done anything other than be wage workers and my siblings and I would have followed suit had it not been for my stint at my school, Udaan,” she says.
Last year, Suggi passed out of Udaan and was enrolled into Class Six at the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) near her village to complete her studies.
Like Suggi, there are 400 girls from different tribal communities who have got a shot at gaining a decent education thanks to Udaan, a residential bridge school set up by Shikshya Sandhan, a non-profit social organisation working to empower the tribals in the district.
Describing the basic work done at the institution, Anil Pradhan, Member Secretary, Shikshya Sandhan, says, “Udaan is a unique educational intervention designed as a residential camp for adolescent girls in the age group of 9-14, who have either never been enrolled in a school or have dropped out very early. It enables them to complete five years of primary schooling in just one year through a compact and accelerated curriculum. Once they complete the course and pass the Class 5 exam, then we assist them move on to middle and secondary government schools.”
According to Pradhan, most of the pupils at Udaan are those who have “not only borne the brunt of extreme poverty but are also bound by social and cultural compulsions, which force them to take on the role of care-givers to their younger siblings and even assume tough household and livelihood responsibilities”.
Mayurbhanj district is home to 53 indigenous tribal communities, most of which are socially and economically backward. As they battle poverty on an everyday basis, educating their children is the last thing on their mind.
Nonetheless, whereas some families do manage to send their boys to school, the girls are generally confined to a domestic life, as they learn to do tasks like tending to the livestock, minding their siblings and, at times, even chipping in to make sal leaf plates or beedi to supplement their meagre family income.
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“Simply because money is so hard to come by, it is an uphill task to talk tribal parents into sending their girls to school, even it is free of cost. What I have observed during my extensive interactions with them is that tribal parents, too, consider education for girls as a useless activity. They would much rather have them taking care of the home as they step out for work. Initially, we interacted with a few tribal communities to understand their mindset and attitudes towards girls’ education before we got down to working towards bringing about a change,” reveals Santosh Sahoo, who goes from village to village as a community mobiliser for Shikshya Sandhan.
After they enter Udaan, which was set up in 2009, the biggest challenge before the teachers is to give lessons to the girls in the local Odia language. Whereas that is the language used in the government school curricula, these youngsters are used to their own tribal dialects.
Nonetheless, after intensive sessions through the course of the year they are brought up to speed with the basic coursework. Explains Pradhan, “Education in Udaan can be best described as a life changing experience for the adolescent girls, as it provides them with formal education and facilitates in their psychosocial empowerment. While the idea of giving formal education through an accelerated curriculum is to allow them to catch up on the lost time, the aim of psychosocial empowerment is rooted in the belief that if the girls live through experiences that can build their self confidence they, in turn, can become change agents and role models for their own community.”
Away from their home and all that was previously familiar to them, the girls are truly taken care of by the teachers and staffers at Udaan so that they can easily settle down to work hard.
Udaan camp coordinator, Snehalata Mahakud, is aware of how vulnerable the girls initially feel and she consciously takes out time to make them feel comfortable and protected. “We understand they are anxious to be away from their loved ones and so we try to give them a safe and loving environment at school. Besides their regular studies, they learn everything from how to maintain cleanliness and hygiene to games as well as cultural activities. These help them to take on leadership roles and develop valuable life skills. In fact, the entire experience of living at Udaan allows them to build their decision-making ability, communicate effectively and understand the physical and emotional changes that they are going through during adolescence,” she says.
Elaborating on the bond that the girls develop with their teachers, Mama Niharika Kundu, a teacher at Udaan, says, “After staying at Udaan for one year when the students are ready to move on for further studies they are always sad and teary-eyed. We nurture them with our love and attention and it is certainly not easy to let go.”
Like Suggi Mankadia, Malati Murmu has become a role model for other girls in her Santal community. Even though she had studied till Class Two in her village, she had to drop out as her mother felt she would be of greater “use” at home. In keeping with her family tradition, she, too, joined her parents in stitching Sal leaf plates which they sold in the weekly haat (market) to earn a few rupees. She was making 50 plates a day and earning Rs 5 for her hard work. These days, however, she has greater ambitions. “I am happy to have got admission into the KGBV in our block. Being at Udaan, I realised how I was missing out things that every normal teen gets to do. There is nothing to stop me from fulfilling my dream of becoming a teacher now,” she says.
If Malati wants to teach when she grows up, Suggi aspires to be the Sarpanch (village head) of her hamlet and provide good governance to her people. Both of them loudly acknowledge that only education can give them the future they so passionately yearn for today. Udaan has certainly given them wings to fly high and achieve their goals.
(This article is part of U.N. Women’s Empowering Women — Empowering Humanity: Picture It! campaign in the lead-up to Beijing+20.)