Basic education and gender equality

Real lives

Transformation through education: The story of Lalita

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© UNICEF
Lalita Kumari - on the cover of UNICEF’s report "The State of the World’s Children 2004".

Dusty, neglected Sitamarhi District, located in India’s poorest state of Bihar, seems like the most unlikely place to encounter girl power. Yet one determined girl—Lalita Kumari—has overcome many obstacles to transform herself into an educated young woman. Recently she enjoyed the distinction of being featured on the cover of UNICEF’s flagship report "The State of the World’s Children 2004".

In Sitamarhi District, where Lalita lives, almost two-thirds of the population is living below the poverty line. Female literacy and girls’ education have never been a high priority in the district. About 26 per cent of female residents are literate, which is only about half the corresponding percentage for males in the district; it is also far below the state and national level.

Like many others in the village, Lalita's parents wanted her to get married at the age of 10; she only learned to read at the age of 12. Eager to learn, she secretly attended a local day school—“Jagjagi”—for girls from disadvantaged communities.

“I still remember the day my twin brother caught me going to school,” recalls Lalita. “He beat me up since he was ashamed of the fact that I dared to study when none of the men in our family had ever attended school. My mother condoned his violence…I could not understand how mothers do not side with their daughters.”

In 1997, the “Mahila Samakhya” (Education for Women’s Equality) programme started a residential school called the “Mahila Shikshan Kendra.” “Mahila Samakhya” was part of the Bihar Education Project; the Project aimed to provide comprehensive basic education to girls. Lalita defied her parents by attending the school’s innovative eight-month course in 2000, along with other 24 illiterate to semi-literate girls.

“In my village, I was doing nothing but cutting grass, fetching firewood, cleaning and cooking. In between, I used to attend the “Jagjagi”, but this was without my parents’ knowledge,” says Lalita. At the “Mahila Shikshan Kendra,” Lalita and the other girls learned to read and write, and received life skills training. They were also taught cycling, karate, hygiene, health care, and public speaking. 

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF India
Lalita and her Mahila Shikshan Kendra classmates practice karate in her home district of Sitamarhi

After “Mahila Shikshan Kendra,” Lalita returned home with the skills that helped her to set up a tailoring shop. Upon her request for further education, “Mahila Shikshan Kendra” sponsored her in acquiring teaching skills in karate. Today Lalita travels by bus to teach karate to girls in four “Mahila Shikshan Kendra” schools.

After being photographed for the cover of UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children report, she travelled to New Delhi for the report’s worldwide launch. There she met politicians and film stars, and participated in a press conference. "I want all the girls of the world to go to school like me and progress," she said earnestly.

Girls are now lining up for the “Mahila Shikshan Kendra” programme. The fast-growing enrollment has increased the demand for more schools and additional teachers.

“Now I believe that every daughter has the potential, and I will tell everyone to think differently,” says Lalita’s father, Bhadai Majhi, while her mother, Saroopia Devi, beams with pride. “Look at the respect that is being given to my daughter,” says the proud mother.

Today Lalita is not only a celebrity and a karate teacher, but is also an independent young woman who supports herself and her family. “I want to keep studying and become an accomplished teacher. I want to teach girls about the world outside their experience, and I dream of a school in every village!”


 

 

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