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Reaching out to India’s poorest: Sister Sudha awarded government distinction

© UNICEF India/2005/Ranjan Rahi
Sister Sudha Varghese stands in a classroom run by her centre for socially excluded girls in the village of Shivala Musahari in Bihar, one of the country’s poorest states.

By Anupam Srivastava

JAMSAUT, Bihar, India, 6 February 2006 – Girls from the Musahar community in the village of Jamsaut are studying at their local school. What looks like a perfectly normal classroom scene makes for an unusual sight here, as these girls belong to one of the most destitute and marginalised groups in Bihar – India’s poorest state.

Girls’ education for India’s poorest

It wasn’t that long ago that these girls would never have been seen at school. Crowded in their classroom, they sing slogans heard throughout the quiet village: “We will go to school even if we do not have food to eat.”
They’re getting an education thanks to Sister Sudha Varghese. She has been sending girls to school from the Musahar community for 20 years. Her institution, Nari Gunjan, has more than 1,500 girls enrolled and runs over 50 centres.

© UNICEF India/2005/Ranjan Rahi
Sister Sudha Varghese inquires about the well-being of a girl washing utensils in a village in Bihar. UNICEF has been supporting Sister Sudha’s effort to bring education to India’s poorest.

At the centres the girls acquire a voice of their own. “Earlier I would hardly speak up. Now, I speak my mind,” says Seema, a young woman who now has plans for her future.

With the help of UNICEF, Sister Sudha is now reaching out to girls from impoverished and marginalised groups, especially the Musahars, who have faced decades of exclusion.

Sister Sudha Varghese awarded for her dedicated work

India’s national government recently awarded Sister Sudha Padmashri the country’s highest civilian award, the Padmashri. “It is a rare honour. This award belongs to all of us: UNICEF, the Government of Bihar and, especially, the Musahars, who understand the importance of education and empowerment, and see the vital connection between the two,” Sister Sudha said after receiving the award.

© UNICEF India/2005/Ranjan Rahi
Sister Sudha Varghese stands before her modest brick and thatch-roofed house in Jamsaut village in Bihar. She was awarded the Padmashri, one of India's highest civilian honours, for her social work this year.

These days Sister Sudha is busy setting up a girls' hostel in a building provided by the government, where Musahar girls will stay in their pursuit of higher studies. "There are so many of them who are keen to join," she says, beaming. Not too long ago the idea of girls living away from home and studying would be dismissed by families.

It is rare for social workers to live among the Musahar community, in an area known for its high crime rate, but Sister Sudha has lived here for more than 15 years. She even built a small house made of bricks covered by a thatched roof. During the time she spent here she acquired a law degree to fight cases for women who have faced abuse.

The award, received on the eve of India’s Republic Day, 26 January, attracted many people to Sister Sudha’s village of Jamsaut. Expressing the sense of elation that has gripped the UNICEF Field Office for Bihar and Jharkhand State, Representative Bijaya Rajbhandari says, “We are indeed overjoyed that Sister Sudha and her work have been recognised. The challenge ahead for us and for her is to get more girls from excluded communities to school.”

Sabine Dolan contributed to this report from New York.



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