An Ambitious Dream for a Girl in India: Schooling Labor, Culture
Restrict Lower-Caste Females
By John Lancaster in Kudri, India
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 16, 2004; Page A01
In the brief, cherished lull between waking up and household
chores, Seema Mahato, 15, hunched over a crude wooden table, racing to
complete her English homework. By the pale yellow light of a kerosene
she softly read aloud from a story called "A Visit to the Zoo," which
had painstakingly copied into a lined notebook. It was 4:30 a.m.
An hour later, the sky had begun to lighten outside the windowless
house that she shares with her family and several farm animals. Seema
reluctantly put away her schoolwork. After fetching water from the
neighborhood pump, she squatted in her dirt yard and washed last
dishes with soap and ash, then headed into the cowshed with a straw
to collect dung. Soon it would be time for school.
The daughter of illiterate low-caste farm workers, Seema struggles to
space for learning. Her chores begin before dawn and resume as soon
gets home from her 9th-grade classes at a Catholic missionary school.
days off from school, she often does farm work for local landlords
equivalent of 43 cents a day.
It is a balancing act that doesn't always balance. A welfare agency
Seema a bicycle under a program to boost school attendance among
cutting travel time on lonely country roads. That helped, but other
have kept her struggling to keep up with her studies. Earlier this
was nearly pulled out of school by her mother, who wanted her to work
Seema's uphill quest for a high school diploma and ultimately a
degree -- a goal so audacious that she has yet to mention it to her
-- is emblematic of one of India's most urgent social challenges:
girls in school.
Numerous development studies have shown that improving educational
opportunities for girls yields benefits across society. Girls who
basic schooling are more likely to postpone marriage and children.
raise smaller, better-educated families that in turn contribute to
living standards. An emphasis on girls' education has been widely
cited as a
major factor in the economic success of other parts of Asia such as
Korea and Taiwan.
Yet India, for all its economic and scientific successes of recent
has proved stubbornly resistant to the trend. Girls in India attend
at significantly lower rates than boys, accounting for four in 10
in grades six through 12, according to the World Bank. India's female
literacy rate of 45 percent (compared with 68 percent for men) is on
Although attitudes are changing, many parents -- particularly among
rural poor, who still account for most of India's billion-plus
fail to see the point of educating daughters who typically marry as
and leave the house. Sons, by contrast, are regarded as future
who will take care of their parents in old age.
"Somewhere in their heart of hearts, they do feel that the girl
another family -- she'll be married off, while the son will be with
the rest of our lives," said Scholastica Kiro, a senior welfare
Jharkhand state, who helps administer the bicycle program.
But the picture is not without hope. Government programs aimed at
girls' access to school -- such as the bicycle initiative -- are
narrow the gender gap in education, according to development experts.
Government data show that in 1999, the percentage of girls between
of six and 14 who were attending school was 74 percent, up from 59
just six years earlier.
A cheerful, self-confident girl whose thick wavy hair displays the
reddish tint of chronic malnutrition, Seema grew up in Kudri, an
farming village of about 80 households roughly 500 miles southeast of
Delhi, the capital. She has a 13-year-old brother and a 12-year-old
both of whom are also enrolled in school. An older sister, Rekha, 17,
mentally handicapped and all but helpless. Their home has neither
electricity nor running water. A nearby field serves as the latrine.
Like many of their neighbors, Seema's father, Meghnath, and her
Vimla, earn the bulk of their living -- about $43 per month -- as
at nearby rice paddies and grain fields. "Only when we work do we get
for the next day," said Meghnath, 45, a thin, weary-looking man with a
fringe of unkempt gray hair.
Despite her humble circumstances, Seema is lucky in at least one
lives about three miles from Nirmala High School, an unassuming
structure that was founded by a Belgian missionary in 1964 and now
363 boys and girls, whose classes are segregated by sex.
In morning Hindi class, Seema sat attentively with about 40 other 9th-
girls -- all wearing white uniforms with their hair plaited and tied
loops with black ribbons -- as teacher Peter Bhengra led students in a
spirited discussion of a short story set in an Indian village.
"What does it mean to 'boycott' a man?" he asked, calling on Seema and
referring to one of the characters in the story.
"Nobody talks to him -- nobody moves around with him," Seema answered,
before sitting down with a relieved look.
The teacher nodded his approval, then called on another student to
why villagers were avoiding the man. "Because he sings Hindi movie
winks at women!" the girl said in mock horror. The class erupted in
When lunch break was announced with the clang of a hand-rung steel
the school has no electricity -- Seema confided she was working
exceptionally hard in science because she wants to be a nurse. "I will
become something with this education," she declared.
Stealing Time to Study
As night fell in Kudri, Seema sat on her haunches in the kitchen and
prepared dinner. Working by the light of a tiny oil lamp, she chopped
potatoes for a meatless curry, then mixed flour and water to make
flatbread. Finally, with the potatoes simmering on the stove, Seema
excuse herself to do her math homework.
But her mother, a stout woman whose vermilion-streaked hair part
status as a married Hindu woman, ordered her to cook the bread. After
irritated retort, Seema started rolling out the dough in individual
portions, which she then fried on a griddle. The process took nearly
hour, and Seema was the last to eat. At 9:55, she pulled out her
then struggled with geometry problems for half an hour before
the hard wooden pallet she shares with her younger sister.
"When I'm not attending school or doing homework, I'm doing
said. During harvest season, her parents often pull her out of school
help them in the fields. Last year, she missed nearly 25 days that
In order to ease such pressures, Jharkhand state has, since 2001,
10,000 bicycles to disadvantaged schoolgirls between the ages of 13
according to Kiro, the welfare official. The purpose is to reward
staying enrolled, create more time for their studies and ease
about their daughters' safety during long, unescorted walks to school.
Staying in School
Before she got her bicycle in early 2002, Seema used to spend nearly
walking each way to and from school. Now she makes the trip in about
minutes, whizzing past glistening green rice paddies on a maroon one-
with pictures of Bollywood movie stars pasted to the mud flaps. The
has allowed her to squeeze in extra tutoring before school and devote
time to helping her mother around the house.
School officials say they have noticed a significant improvement in
attendance rates and academic performance since the program started,
the share of those passing their final exams rising from 35 percent
percent in just two years.
But as Seema discovered one day last March, a bicycle by itself is no
panacea. The news in her report card could hardly have been worse:
failed her final exams in math, science and English and would have to
the 9th grade. Weeping inconsolably, she went to see her English
informal mentor, Lucy Hansda, who pulled her into an empty classroom
to calm her down.
"I'm a girl; they won't let me study," Hansda, 34, recalled the
saying of her parents between sobs. After Seema warned that her
use the failing grades as an excuse to pull her out of school,
Ursuline nun with a warm manner and a ready smile, promised to
During a meeting two days later at Hansda's convent, Seema's mother,
told the teacher that Seema would have to end her schooling because
family could no longer afford the cost of supplies and the annual
540 rupees, or $11, both women recalled.
But Hansda proved an effective ally. "Whatever you do, don't pull her
school," Seema's mother recounted Hansda saying over the course of a
lengthy, emotional conversation. "This is her age to study, and if
her out of school now, her life will be ruined."
Hansda told Vimla Mahato that she could pay Seema's tuition in
and that the school would cover the cost of her daughter's notebooks.
a long chat that night, Seema's mother and father agreed to keep their
daughter in school, at least for the time being.
Seema has another ally in her aunt, Shanti Devi, 34, her father's
sister and the only member of the family to attend college.
During a visit to Kudri in June, Devi said she was distressed to hear
the teenager had almost been pulled out of school. She privately
Seema that she would help pay for her schooling through the 12th
even through college if she made it that far. "This is a secret plan
and my aunt," Seema said. "I'll convince my parents to delay my
I pass the 10th grade."
One measure of Seema's enthusiasm for school is the effort she puts
getting ready for it. In the morning, after clearing away the
dishes, she knelt in front of a small mirror. With a look of intense
concentration, she plaited her hair, moisturized her face with cream
finished it off with a dusting of talcum powder.
Then she changed into her uniform, hopped onto her bike and pedaled
braids streamed in the wind as the bicycle gathered speed