Community teams up to bring girls back to school
Rajasthan is India’s largest state in terms of geographical area and the student dropout rates continue to be higher than the national average as large number of children are engaged in paid labour (particularly in the cotton industry). In 2010, close to 1.2 million children in the state were out of school, 0.7 million were girls.
A large percentage of these out of school children are from the tribal and hard-to-reach districts of Banswara, Dungarpur and Udaipur, which have consistently lagged behind on vital social development indicators.
For the last six years, Silwans has been working with determination towards ensuring that every child, particularly girls, stay in school and complete their elementary education. Luckily, Silwans is not alone in this mission. Community leaders and village-level workers in ten panchayats of Udaipur are also working on the same.
With the support of the Government of Rajasthan and UNICEF, the community leaders and village-level workers have ensured that nearly 4,000 out-of-school children are back in school. More than 40 percent of them are girls like Khushi.
In these areas, the number of children attending school has increased from 40 percent in 2008 to over 90 per cent, at present. Also, the number of students who have remained in school between 6-14 years has gone up by 35-40 per cent since 2008.
This spurt in the enrolment rate would have been unthinkable in 2008 when less than half the number of children aged 6-14 years attended school in eight panchayats of Girwa, Sarada and Kherwada blocks in Udapiur. The villages, with a predominant tribal population of Bhils, are scattered over a mountainous terrain and are largely inaccessible due to poor connectivity attributed to a lack of basic public transport services.
Apart from unsafe terrain, poverty and illiteracy, migration to neighboring cities for labour was a major reason why children didn’t attend schools. The families put the children to work in marble mines, construction sites, restaurants and picking cotton.
“The schools are spread across forests and streams, home to wild animals. This made most parents apprehensive of sending their children, particularly girls, to school and it contributed to the drop-out rate,” says Marjorie Aziz, secretary of Unnati Sanstha, an NGO supported by UNICEF that has been working with the community to help children get back to school.
After multi-stakeholder deliberations, it was decided that transport facilities for children of these areas would ease their access to school and improve their participation in education.
The transport service started in 2008 and was availed by approximately 700 children like Khushi. The attendance rates, which were as low as 10-20 per cent before the transport service was provided, increased by 80 per cent in 2013. “The initiative became so popular in 2008 that the state government later adopted it,” says Marjorie.
Getting parents motivated to send children to school
Providing transport to get the children back to school and stay in the school was just a small part of the problem. “The most difficult part was to change the attitude of parents to send their children, particularly the girls, to school,” says Silwans Patel.
“Parents engaged as laborers are tired after a day's work and they don't mind listening to a song about the merits of education at the end of the day. We work within the community and pass on our message on the importance of educating girls through our songs and poems,” he adds.
As an important part of the initiative, NGOs and community workers joined hands with local governance structures like the panchayat to set up monitoring mechanisms and to track the performance of children in schools. “Panchayats have a legal authority to institutionalise back-up structures and have ended up becoming protection mechanisms in villages which keep children in school,” says Jitendra, Education Officer with UNICEF in Rajasthan.
The Right to Education Act 2009 seeks greater involvement of communities in school development and management and mandates the establishment of a School Management Committee (SMC) for all schools with parents comprising 75 per cent of the members. Effective coordination of School Management Committee (SMC) members with Panchayat also serves as a pressure tactic on the parents.
Out-of-the-box solution by teachers
“I know some children, especially girls, don't have pens. So we give them pens as a prize and it works wonders with these children. During our prayer sessions, we felicitate them so that they remain motivated. We also talk to those parents whose children often miss schools.”
The concerted efforts and the support of the community workers, panchayats, teachers, principals and non-government organisations have ensured girls like Shaama and Khushi have a bright future ahead of them.
“But we have a long way to go. We have to expand our reach,” signs an optimistic Silwans.