This is the story of Razia, a girl from village Bahpur in Moradabad district of Uttar Pradesh. It has all the ingredients of a fairy tale, but with a difference. Razia might not be a run-of the-mill princess depicted in fairy tales, rather she represents a brave and mighty character in her own right. Razia comes from a very poor Muslim family belonging to the barber community. Abject poverty, an unemployed and visually challenged father; a daily wage-earning mother, striving unsuccessfully to make ends meet—all these were enough to snatch away a carefree childhood from her.
Why would one think of education, when even getting the next meal is replete with uncertainties? Poverty had prevented Razia’s elder brothers from studying beyond class 2. They felt better off trying to eke a living to supplement the family income.
But Razia was determined to find a way out and luck also favoured her. With the support of Malala Fund, Oxfam India and Nav Bharat Samaj Kalyan Samiti (NBSKS) led a campaign in Uttar Pradesh to promote girls’ education in the state. Under this campaign, girls groups were formed and motivated to track out of school girls and bring them to schools, parents were counseled, and teachers were engaged to make gender friendly environment in schools, track drop out children and support them in improving their skills. This, along with the RTE Act, 2009 (that guarantees eight years of continued free education for all children from six to fourteen years), presented Razia with the opportunity of going to school. And she seized it with all her might.
So what if the income from her family’s 1 bigha of land, sale of milk of their sole buffalo and her mother’s sporadic earnings (as a farm and construction laborer) almost always falls short of keeping the hearth burning, so what if Razia has had to go hungry many a times, so what if she has to work alongside her mother to supplement the meagre family finances, so what if she has to do all household chores along with attending school, so what if she has to study under candle light as there is no electricity in the house, so what.... the list is endless. But for Razia, all this is a small price to pay for what she has got in return—the gift of education. Razia studied till Class 5 in her village primary school. After that her mother and brothers said there was no need for her to study any more. But Rehana Rehman of NBSKS came to her rescue. She was known to Razia’s parents as she had earlier helped them get a buffalo under some government scheme for BPL (below poverty line) cardholders. She explained to Razia’s mother the importance of education for girls and managed to get her consent for Razia to continue with her studies in an upper primary school of a nearby village. Today, Razia is studying in Class 8 and is slowly but steadily inching towards realizing her dream of becoming a teacher.
Razia’s face glows with pride as she shares: “Once madame (Razia’s mentor, akin to a fairy godmother) organized an elocution competition where we had to speak something on education. I took part in it and spoke without hesitation in front of 400-500 people. I got a lot of appreciation from the audience for my speech. They said, “Wow look how studies have brought out the talent of this girl from a very poor family. This gave me a lot of encouragement. It also strengthened my resolve to become a teacher so that I can teach other girls like me who are unable to study because of poverty. All this has honed my leadership qualities. I am very fortunate to have come in contact with NBSKS and Oxfam India, who gave me a platform to come forward.”
Razia is a bright student. She takes part in all school activities, and is a very good orator who is not scared to speak out her mind in front of others. This trait has helped her to convince other girls to get an education. No wonder she is among the chosen girl-leaders from Moradabad district who are tracking out of school Muslim children and motivating them to join school.
According to the 2011 census, Uttar Pradesh ranks 29th in literacy level among the 35 states with a literacy rate of 70%, which is below the national average of 74%. Moradabad district’s literacy rate is even lower at 58.7% and also shows a huge gender gap- male literacy rate is 66.8% and female literacy rate is 49.6%. A recent survey conducted Oxfam India and State Collective for Right to Education (SCoRE) in this region identified that the major reasons for girls dropping out of school were (i) taking care of younger siblings, (ii) non- existence of separate toilets for boys and girls, (iii) distant location of school and (iv) children being engaged as labor to help supplement family income. A patriarchal mindset (which often results in child marriage) also prevents girls, especially Muslim girls, to continue with mainstream education and they are kept engaged in household chores. Moreover, education is not free beyond class 8, which acts as a deterrent for poor families.
It has been no different with Razia. Her two elder brothers were never in favour of her schooling. Even neighbours advised her parents to discontinue her studies. Razia resents the inequality that society fosters between boys and girls. Sons are given all the freedom they want and never made to do household work, whereas girls are expected to remain housebound and refrain from studying. She feels only education can give us a new and progressive way of thinking. “Our parents were illiterate, so they give preference to boys. If we girls get educated we will not treat our sons and daughters differently but give them equal opportunities”. Words of great wisdom indeed coming from a 14 year old teenager.
Razia’s simple request to the government is to make education free for girls till class 12 and also to open more higher-secondary schools for them in their neighbourhood. Currently there is just one Intermediate College for girls in the whole of Kundarki block, which is about 15-20 km away from many villages of that area, and there is no mode of direct transport either. This further acts as a damper for girls to continue their education after class 8.
The RTE Act makes government accountable for providing 8 years of free and compulsory education but even after seven years of its implementation only 6.4% of the schools in Uttar Pradesh are RTE compliant. Although, access to equitable quality education is an issue for both girls and boys, but the situation is more challenging for girls. Oxfam India, with the support of Malala Foundation has initiated a state- wide campaign on girls’ education. Girls’ groups have been formed under the campaign, who track the out of school girls, provide the list to respective schools to get the girls enrolled, meet with parents to mobilize them towards their girls’ education, and hold meeting with School Management Committees to seek their help. This year the campaign is working with 20 schools in Moradabad district. The aim is to (i) Increase the ambit of RTE by covering pre-primary to higher secondary level education, (ii) Effective implementation of provisions of RTE Act, (iii) promoting girls’ education to reduce inequalities. This is in consonance with Sustainable Development Goals 4, 5 and 10.
Razia’s story does not end here, rather it spells the beginning of a new dawn. It shows that a little compassion, help and good laws can act as a magic wand to rescue thousands of girls like Razia from the shackles of an inequitable and patriarchal society, and allow them an education that would help them soar to freedom.
While this story did not begin with "Once upon a time...", I would like it to have the proverbial fairy tale ending of "And Razia lived happily ever after!"
(Shobha Shukla is the Managing Editor of CNS (Citizen News Service) and has written extensively on health and gender justice over decades. Follow her on Twitter @shobha1shukla or visit CNS: www.citizen-news.org)