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50story of courage

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    Nov 14, 2004
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      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
      lamp,
      she softly read aloud from a story called "A Visit to the Zoo," which
      she
      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
      brick
      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
      night's
      dishes with soap and ash, then headed into the cowshed with a straw
      basket
      to collect dung. Soon it would be time for school.

      The daughter of illiterate low-caste farm workers, Seema struggles to
      make
      space for learning. Her chores begin before dawn and resume as soon
      as she
      gets home from her 9th-grade classes at a Catholic missionary school.
      On
      days off from school, she often does farm work for local landlords
      for the
      equivalent of 43 cents a day.

      It is a balancing act that doesn't always balance. A welfare agency
      gave
      Seema a bicycle under a program to boost school attendance among
      girls by
      cutting travel time on lonely country roads. That helped, but other
      demands
      have kept her struggling to keep up with her studies. Earlier this
      year she
      was nearly pulled out of school by her mother, who wanted her to work
      in the
      fields.

      Seema's uphill quest for a high school diploma and ultimately a
      nursing
      degree -- a goal so audacious that she has yet to mention it to her
      parents
      -- is emblematic of one of India's most urgent social challenges:
      keeping
      girls in school.

      Numerous development studies have shown that improving educational
      opportunities for girls yields benefits across society. Girls who
      complete
      basic schooling are more likely to postpone marriage and children.
      They
      raise smaller, better-educated families that in turn contribute to
      higher
      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
      South
      Korea and Taiwan.

      Yet India, for all its economic and scientific successes of recent
      years,
      has proved stubbornly resistant to the trend. Girls in India attend
      school
      at significantly lower rates than boys, accounting for four in 10
      students
      in grades six through 12, according to the World Bank. India's female
      adult
      literacy rate of 45 percent (compared with 68 percent for men) is on
      a par
      with Sudan's.

      Although attitudes are changing, many parents -- particularly among
      the
      rural poor, who still account for most of India's billion-plus
      people --
      fail to see the point of educating daughters who typically marry as
      teens
      and leave the house. Sons, by contrast, are regarded as future
      breadwinners
      who will take care of their parents in old age.

      "Somewhere in their heart of hearts, they do feel that the girl
      belongs to
      another family -- she'll be married off, while the son will be with
      us for
      the rest of our lives," said Scholastica Kiro, a senior welfare
      official in
      Jharkhand state, who helps administer the bicycle program.

      But the picture is not without hope. Government programs aimed at
      boosting
      girls' access to school -- such as the bicycle initiative -- are
      starting to
      narrow the gender gap in education, according to development experts.
      Government data show that in 1999, the percentage of girls between
      the ages
      of six and 14 who were attending school was 74 percent, up from 59
      percent
      just six years earlier.

      Meager Circumstances
      A cheerful, self-confident girl whose thick wavy hair displays the
      telltale
      reddish tint of chronic malnutrition, Seema grew up in Kudri, an
      isolated
      farming village of about 80 households roughly 500 miles southeast of
      New
      Delhi, the capital. She has a 13-year-old brother and a 12-year-old
      sister,
      both of whom are also enrolled in school. An older sister, Rekha, 17,
      is
      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
      mother,
      Vimla, earn the bulk of their living -- about $43 per month -- as
      laborers
      at nearby rice paddies and grain fields. "Only when we work do we get
      grain
      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
      sense: She
      lives about three miles from Nirmala High School, an unassuming
      whitewashed
      structure that was founded by a Belgian missionary in 1964 and now
      serves
      363 boys and girls, whose classes are segregated by sex.

      In morning Hindi class, Seema sat attentively with about 40 other 9th-
      grade
      girls -- all wearing white uniforms with their hair plaited and tied
      in
      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
      explain
      why villagers were avoiding the man. "Because he sings Hindi movie
      songs and
      winks at women!" the girl said in mock horror. The class erupted in
      laughter.

      When lunch break was announced with the clang of a hand-rung steel
      bar --
      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
      dough for
      flatbread. Finally, with the potatoes simmering on the stove, Seema
      tried to
      excuse herself to do her math homework.

      But her mother, a stout woman whose vermilion-streaked hair part
      denotes her
      status as a married Hindu woman, ordered her to cook the bread. After
      an
      irritated retort, Seema started rolling out the dough in individual
      portions, which she then fried on a griddle. The process took nearly
      an
      hour, and Seema was the last to eat. At 9:55, she pulled out her
      pencil box,
      then struggled with geometry problems for half an hour before
      flopping onto
      the hard wooden pallet she shares with her younger sister.

      "When I'm not attending school or doing homework, I'm doing
      housework," she
      said. During harvest season, her parents often pull her out of school
      to
      help them in the fields. Last year, she missed nearly 25 days that
      way.

      In order to ease such pressures, Jharkhand state has, since 2001,
      given away
      10,000 bicycles to disadvantaged schoolgirls between the ages of 13
      and 17,
      according to Kiro, the welfare official. The purpose is to reward
      girls for
      staying enrolled, create more time for their studies and ease
      parents' fears
      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
      an hour
      walking each way to and from school. Now she makes the trip in about
      20
      minutes, whizzing past glistening green rice paddies on a maroon one-
      speed
      with pictures of Bollywood movie stars pasted to the mud flaps. The
      bicycle
      has allowed her to squeeze in extra tutoring before school and devote
      more
      time to helping her mother around the house.

      School officials say they have noticed a significant improvement in
      girls'
      attendance rates and academic performance since the program started,
      with
      the share of those passing their final exams rising from 35 percent
      to 55
      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:
      She had
      failed her final exams in math, science and English and would have to
      repeat
      the 9th grade. Weeping inconsolably, she went to see her English
      teacher and
      informal mentor, Lucy Hansda, who pulled her into an empty classroom
      to try
      to calm her down.

      "I'm a girl; they won't let me study," Hansda, 34, recalled the
      teenager
      saying of her parents between sobs. After Seema warned that her
      mother would
      use the failing grades as an excuse to pull her out of school,
      Hansda, an
      Ursuline nun with a warm manner and a ready smile, promised to
      intercede.

      During a meeting two days later at Hansda's convent, Seema's mother,
      Vimla,
      told the teacher that Seema would have to end her schooling because
      the
      family could no longer afford the cost of supplies and the annual
      tuition of
      540 rupees, or $11, both women recalled.

      But Hansda proved an effective ally. "Whatever you do, don't pull her
      out of
      school," Seema's mother recounted Hansda saying over the course of a
      lengthy, emotional conversation. "This is her age to study, and if
      you pull
      her out of school now, her life will be ruined."

      Hansda told Vimla Mahato that she could pay Seema's tuition in
      installments
      and that the school would cover the cost of her daughter's notebooks.
      After
      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
      younger
      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
      that
      the teenager had almost been pulled out of school. She privately
      promised
      Seema that she would help pay for her schooling through the 12th
      grade, and
      even through college if she made it that far. "This is a secret plan
      of mine
      and my aunt," Seema said. "I'll convince my parents to delay my
      marriage if
      I pass the 10th grade."

      One measure of Seema's enthusiasm for school is the effort she puts
      into
      getting ready for it. In the morning, after clearing away the
      breakfast
      dishes, she knelt in front of a small mirror. With a look of intense
      concentration, she plaited her hair, moisturized her face with cream
      and
      finished it off with a dusting of talcum powder.

      Then she changed into her uniform, hopped onto her bike and pedaled
      off. Her
      braids streamed in the wind as the bicycle gathered speed