This article has been published in partnership with Childrens’ Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) as part of #PromptHerNow, a campaign through which The Better India, Population Foundation of India and CIFF bring to light the work of various organisations and individuals who are working to help bring girls back to schools.
Radha was on top of the world.
She cupped a few broken pieces of jaggery in her hand and ran around the neighborhood going door to door, exclaiming, “I will go to school again.”
This moment of pure joy came after months of struggle and fear of losing a prized possession — her future.
With the COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacting the education sector, many girls like Radha were on the brink of losing the opportunity to be educated. The pre-existing gender gap was said to have widened due to an increased number of drop-outs by female students during this period. India was said to experience an estimated loss of close to 10 million girls during this time.
But the 16-year-old from Hindaun Block of Karauli district, Rajasthan was the lucky one to escape this fate. One of the most backward regions in the state, this district has had several cases of child marriages and teenage pregnancies. Even the act of stepping out alone is seen to be rebellious, let alone pursuing one’s dream.
“Most of the families in our community think that educating a girl child is not necessary and is an added expense. They limit the potential of a girl to household work, marriage and nurturing kids. This mindset became more predominant during the pandemic when many of my friends got married,” says Radha, who wants to grow up to be a nurse.
She recalls how at the onset of the pandemic, her neighbours began to call her parents suggesting that they should get her married. “It was so that the burden of feeding one family member could be reduced. With the restriction on people gathering due to COVID-19, they also thought this time would be optimal for getting me married,” she says.
Radha adds that she would have been one among the many married teenagers in her area, if not for the pre-matric scholarship she received under a government scheme, implemented on-ground by an organisation called IPE Global. An Indian international development consulting group, IPE Global’s project Udaan has been working in Rajasthan to tackle the problem of teenage pregnancies and child marriage for the past four years.
Under this, they have worked to change public perception and fight the gender bias plaguing the society by enabling girl child education. The scholarship is a major step towards it.
“With my poor financial condition and society’s pressure to get my daughter married, I was almost about to remove her from school. But then, she reminded me about the scholarship money, which would take care of her education. Seeing her passion to study I was motivated to rethink my decision and let her continue studies,” shares Naval Kishor Meena, Radha’s father.
With her father’s support, Radha was ready to fight the world and chase her dreams. She soon convinced him to add some money to the existing scholarship and buy a smartphone to continue online classes. “I am glad that the scholarship empowered me to take control of my future,” she adds.
‘I Write My Own Story’
While Radha convinced her father to get a smartphone to continue studies online, 16-year-old Santosh Bairwa was not so lucky.
A Class 10 student in Government Senior Secondary School, Jamola, Ajmer, Santosh struggled hard before she devised a way to overcome the limitations of her access to education.
“My father is a daily-wage labourer, and during the pandemic he would spend days searching for work. Whatever he would earn, he would end up spending on alcohol. Getting regular meals was a big deal let alone a phone. Although he already had a smartphone, he refused to let me use it, as girls here are not usually allowed to do so,” shares Santosh. With the news about schools reopening still in the blur, her father Ramesh even suggested dropping out as he didn’t believe in online classes.
But even the thought of leaving school haunted her, as she knew that it would be followed up with her getting married, and eventually, she would end up pregnant. It was the norm in her village and had happened to many girls before her, but Santosh was not ready to give up just yet.
Recipient of the pre-matric scholarship just like Radha, Santosh received money for all her school expenses like fees, books and other educational resources. She decided she would use the scholarship money to figure out a way.
“On discussing this fear with my classmate, I figured out that she has a smartphone. However, given the amount of data consumed, she was struggling to meet the internet cost per month. This gave me an idea and together we decided to use her smartphone through an internet top-up on my expenses. This helped us attend regular online classes together,” adds Santosh who used some of her scholarship money to fund this expense.
Simultaneously, at this point Udaan volunteers along with her school teachers intervened to convince her parents against making her drop out. After much effort, they all were successful in retaining Santosh’s enrollment.
“I feel elated that I was able to continue studies through tough times. I see now how important it is for a girl to receive this scholarship amount. Having this amount on my own saved me and helped me write my own story,” adds Santosh who wants to grow up to become a police officer.
In the last four years of working in the region, Udaan has accomplished quite a feat, helping more than 6.9 lakh girls receive this scholarship. While enabling the girls to continue their studies online, they are also planning on conducting special remedial bridge courses once the schools reopen. They plan to take every necessary step so that the dreams these girls have carefully crafted eventually lead to fruition.