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Village girls learn a hard lesson

Education in rural areas of the subcontinent is a study in contrasts, with boys attending school and girls expected to stay home

By John Stackhouse
First published May 18, 1993

Biharipur, India

As the dawn mist lifts from the golden wheat fields, Sarvesh Kumar and four other young boys stroll barefoot and carefree along a narrow path to school, their hair slicked back with coconut oil, their black slates and book bags in hand, their family dogs trailing.

In Biharipur, a school day begins as it might on almost any other continent - for boys. For most girls, there is no school day, as the chores of morning, afternoon and evening stitch together in a seamless burden that stretches from one end of life to the other.

While Sarvesh makes his way to school, his neighbour Ram Guddi sits in front of her family's house, winnowing the wheat that her father and older brothers have collected from the fields. When she's finished separating the wheat from the chaff, she will lift a bushel to her head and carry it four kilometres to a small mill where it can be turned into flour. Then she will return to help make dinner, sweep the house and, as always, watch over the younger children.

Diligently sifting the grain, Ram Guddi did not seem quite sure why she has never been to school. But her mother, Ram Sri, was: "What's the use of learning all these subjects if you can't do housework?"

Set on the plain of the Ganges, on soil rich enough to keep everyone fed but not to elevate them from poverty, Biharipur struggles with many development challenges: low nutrition, disease, illiteracy, unstable incomes, government corruption, inappropriate technology.

But like a thousand other villages in India, and many more across the world's southern divide, Biharipur's greatest development challenge may be to educate its girls, to take the seemingly simple first step in the long march to gender equality.

In South Asia, girls tend to start school later, study less and drop out earlier than boys - when they go to school at all. According to the government's official numbers, only one-third of girls in rural India go to school, compared with slightly more than half of boys.

Biharipur's reality is far worse. Of 100 or so girls in the village, only two go to school - and they haven't been in a month.

If India is to achieve the United Nations goal of primary education for all by 2000, it will have to succeed in Biharipur, where female literacy is entangled in a peculiar web of gender bias, compassion, apathy, tradition and poverty.

Like almost every decision made in Biharipur, the decision not to send girls to school is first rooted in farmers' pragmatism. There are innumerable daily chores for girls: fetching water, slapping together cow- dung cakes for cooking fuel, sweeping the house, minding the infants, making from scratch 30 to 40 rotis (pancake-shaped bread) and carrying lunch to the men in the fields.

Boys, on the other hand, can do their chores - milking the buffalo, feeding the goats, repairing the irrigation ditches - either before school starts at 8 a.m. or after it concludes at noon.

There is the distance factor, too. Many parents fear it is unsafe for their daughters to walk two kilometres to the next village, which happens to be dominated by a higher caste.

"We wouldn't send our daughters to a Thakur village," said one mother, referring to the caste of the neighbouring village. Biharipur is dominated by members of the more lowly Yadav caste. "They would throw stones at our daughters, and maybe attack them."

There is the spectre of repression, which never seems to leave a room when a girl or woman is there.

"Parents fear if they send their girl to school she'll start saying no to them," said Rajinder Singh Yadav, Biharipur's only school teacher. "They fear she'll start having her own opinions. There's also the common thinking that says, 'She's going to get married, so why does she need an education?'"

And there is the cost, which for one child can reach 200 rupees ($8) a year. Primary school is supposed to be free in India, but the government in Biharipur's state, Uttar Pradesh, charges a modest monthly maintenance fee (1.2 rupees, or five cents) and provides no books, paper or pencils.

Students must get their own in a nearby town.

Across the wheat field and past a small forest, the roof on the two- room schoolhouse is in such disrepair that class is now held under the expansive branches of a mango tree, where students sit on government-issue jute sacks.

Watching from their fields, many parents who struggle from one season to the next wonder how lessons about the Hindu epic Ramayana, Buddhist philosophy, rapid calculation and the solar system will help the summer monsoon crop or get their children a coveted job in the city.

"I can write my name, I can read the name on the bus, but it didn't really help," said Sunila, 18, who was recently married after eight years of school. She now spends most of her days in a family compound in Biharipur with her new female in-laws, while her husband journeys to a nearby town to complete his secondary schooling.

For those girls who do go to school, it rarely offers a break from the chores of home. Many arrive late with their infant siblings and dash home at recess to help their mothers.

"There's no time for play," said Anita, one of the girls attending school. "My mother says as long as I finish the work at home I can go to school. But she says no more school after the fifth level."

Still, Mr. Yadav, the teacher, said his handful of girl students, most of them from the higher-caste Thakur village, remain his best. "The boys' minds are always occupied with some sort of mischief," he said. "The girls are able to concentrate."

Such praise is scant comfort for one of his best students, Nanhi. At 13, she is to be married in two weeks to a 15-year-old boy from the village.

Wearing a tiny pocket knife on a necklace - the symbol of engagement for girls (boys wear it around their wrists) - Nanhi already knows her fate. Once married, she will leave school, move to her in-laws' home, change her casual salwar kameez for a sari and seldom venture outside, except for chores.

She's not likely to play with her friends again, or journey by bullock cart to the district fair with her 15-year-old sister as they did the day before to buy jewelry and facial creams. The lessons about the moon and short division and the Buddha's search for truth will recede into her childhood memory.

Standing before her class under the giant mango tree for perhaps the last time, Nanhi recited a prayer.

"Give me strength so I can perform my duties," she said, "and serve others better."

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