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Schools as hubs of social transformation

Mar 04, 2009

A silent change is coming in the lives of Meo Muslim girls of Rajasthan, a state in western India. These girl students are now using their knowledge and confidence to demand better facilities like roads, toilets and more teachers for the villages.

It is 5 in the morning and Zaida is rushing around her mud house in the middle of a lush mustard field. Like every morning, the 11-year-old is going to wash and feed the cattle, sweep the entire house and do the dishes, before running to the school.

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In another hut nearby, Rama is also doing the same. The girls in this desert region have been doing this for generations. She too will spend at least four hours doing the chores.

The two will then hit a dirt road leading to the pink-structure that has no lights, fans or chairs. But this is where the collective dreams of these first generation girl students reside: The local Mirzapur primary school.

"I have been doing work around the house since I was six. It is tiring but I'm never too tired to go to school. I love school. I want to become an engineer," says Zaida, flatting cow dung cakes that she and her 35-year-old mother use as fuel for cooking. Her seven-year-old sister, Shabana, helps her in whatever way she can. Both have been going to school only for the past three years.

Not just a school

The school itself has undergone a dramatic change since the villagers collectively decided to take part in its working. It is still very basic, but the real transformation has taken place in the attitude of the teachers, community and kids.

"School was never seen as a part of the village. It was just a small building with a handful of children and one unmotivated teacher," says Ilyas, 32, a resident of the village.

"We meet every two weeks. The teachers are also called for the community meetings to discuss problems and progress of the schooling. We want our daughters to study," says Hanif Khan, Zaida's father.

"We had just one teacher we now have four and they are taken to task if they skip the school. One of them was running a resource centre for continuing education support from his home. We dragged him here," says Shabbudin, who is the elected head of the local village council.

The village is buzzing with activity. It got electricity supply only about two weeks back and a concrete road is being built under a national rural employment guarantee act (NREGA).

"The community's struggle to get the school working also awakened the village to other rights, like government job schemes for rural areas and allocations for roads and other works," says Noor Mohammad, secretary of the local ActionAid partner that has been driving this change.

Noor's sheer presence in the school drives the kids into a state of frenzy. A group of girls from eighth standard hand him an appeal, even as he prepares to make rounds of the classrooms, asking for a female teacher to be appointed.

Some complain about the quality of state-supported lunch they get. "They should give us more bread and reduce gruel in the menu," says Rama, even as first batch of younger student line-up for the food being cooked in an open kitchen outside a classroom.

Little champions of change

"Ab to padhen nu jawanga. Ab nahin bakari charawanga! (Now I will only go to school. Now I will not graze goats!)," each and every Meo Muslim girl in Mizarpur today can now chant this rhyme without fear.

"These girls are the first in the village to have stepped out and travel to take part in public meetings to raise the needs of their village," says Pooja Gupta, 21-year-old community worker who lives in the village to develop trust in the community.

Zaida shared the stage with other community leaders at a regional people's forum in the state capital of Jaipur held in November 2008.

Students have started using the knowledge and confidence they have gained to demand facilities like roads, toilets and more teachers for the villages. "Whenever the state officials make an appearance on Independence Day and Republic Day functions, the girls raise demands and take a commitment on behalf of the community," adds Noor.

The government schools in the Kishengarh Bas block have become centres of social change in a community that till now has been on the sidelines of development. Dilapidated they maybe, but the community's involvement has given schools and education a new meaning.

Source : ActionAid
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