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Children set-up their own school in an Indian village, defying caste barriers

© UNICEF Uttar Pradesh/2007
At the Sahariya school, Bharati, 5, gives a lesson to other children her own age as their teacher Sonia looks on.

By Kulsum Mustafa

JAMALPUR, India, 16 May 2007 – The steep, narrow path leads you to an enclosure covered by a thatched roof. The floor has been plastered with clay and the walls are built on columns of tree trunks.

At 4 p.m., 40 children ranging from four to seven years of age are seated on the floor. They are engrossed in a picture story that Sonia, their energetic young volunteer teacher, is reading out to them.

The school was born out of sheer necessity because the primary school in the adjoining village denied access to these children, who are from a socially excluded group. Not willing to take this lying down, their parents chose to educate the children by setting up their own school, which is run by teenagers.

Today the school in this Sahariya hamlet, which has 30 households and a population of around 350, stands as a shining example of what firm resolve and community participation can achieve in the face of adversity.

© UNICEF Uttar Pradesh/2007
A Sahariya child learns to write the alphabet with his chalk and slate.

Rejected on basis of caste

The Sahariya tribal people earn their livelihood by breaking stones or working in agriculture. When they decided to settle in Jamalpur, they enrolled their children at the lone primary school, about 1.5 km from their hamlet.

Each day the children had to pass the village inhabited by the so-called ‘higher caste’ on their way to school. The villagers found the sight of these children inauspicious and tried to shoo them away, using their own children to harass and frighten them as well.

One child, Chandrapal, describes his tormentors: “Sometimes the children would take away our slates, sometime our chalk. They also passed remarks and ridiculed us.”

Frightened, the students slowly started dropping out. That is when the Sahariya elders decided to do something. With the help of the UNICEF-supported Saarthi Foundation here in Lalitpur District, they set up their own informal school in the Panchayat Community Centre. Adolescents from the hamlet, who are students themselves, volunteered to teach.

Saved from illiteracy

“We decided to hold classes in the evening as this would give us time to finish our own studies and household chores,” says Sevkunwar, one of the volunteers. “Also, some of the kids who accompany their parents to work would be back and hence not miss this opportunity.”

If any teacher is held up with work, bright pupils like Bharati and Laxmi, both 5, often double up as temporary teachers.

These innocent Sahariya children have not only been saved from falling into the clutches of illiteracy, but at a tender age have also learnt how to jump the hurdles of discrimination.



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