by Lesley D. Biswas
Poverty, illiteracy and gender disparity are engrained in the Indian society. Key indicators of social development such as health and education are below average. The World Bank estimates India is home to 456 million people who live below the poverty line, earning less than $ 1.25 per day. This is equal to 33 percent of the world’s poor population.
Lack of schools in the rural areas is one prime reason for gross illiteracy amongst Indian’s, especially women. Indian society is deeply conservative when it comes to the girl child. Sending girls far from home for schooling is not a common practice in rural areas. And in the case of adolescent girls, parents are known to be even more rigid. So, when 30-year-old Pooja Mishra - one of the 10 young women entrepreneurs of India to receive the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and National Entrepreneurship Network Fellowship - started a school and college in her native village, she brought quality education to the doorstep of many girls eager to learn.
Mishra, who spent four-and-a-half years in the USA with her husband, was alarmed at the difference in education opportunities available to children in the US compared to children in India. “In the US basic education is easily accessible to all. The government ensures that each child is in school and gets a basic education. While in India this is still a dream to get each and every child enrolled in school,” exclaims Mishra.In 2008, with the intent to change this disparity, Mishra established Gurukul Mahavidhyala and Gurukul Public School at Purasi, Halor in Rae Bareli, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a state with a low female literacy rate of 42.98 percent. For the girls of Purasi village going to the nearest school meant a daily commute of 25 km. Without access to education in the vicinity of their homes, girls were left with no other option but to languish in ignorance.
Today, within two years of opening, Gurukul Mahavidhyala, an English medium college, boasts 224 students, and Gurukul Public School is steadily progressing with 40 students.
“There are more girl students than boys in our college,” Mishra proudly declares. She attributes this to the scholarships provided to girl students and the fact that now they have a college in their village.
Lack of educational institutions in villages alone is not the reason behind India’s 75 million illiterate children, out of which girls constitute 55 percent. Leelu, a skinny little girl of eight with sparkling eyes and an affectionate smile, lives in a small farming village in Jharkhand, one of the easternmost states of India.
Leelu wakes up at the crack of dawn not to go to school but to collect firewood from the nearby jungle. After collecting dry twigs and branches she joins her mother in the household chores - cleaning, washing the dishes, and tending to the livestock. She has never been to school though there is a government school in her village. When questioned, her mother naively replies, “I teach my daughter skills that will come handy in her future life.”In rural families the primary responsibility of women after marriage is to look after the hearth. Mothers like Leelu’s take pride in training their daughters to be accomplished homemakers, ignorant that education empowers women in so many ways.
According to the World Bank, educating the girl child increases infant survival rates and reduces maternal death. In India the infant mortality rate is 53 percent and 63,000 women die during or shortly after pregnancy. The World Bank points out that educated women marry later, make use of birth control methods, and avail themselves of maternal heath services. They provide better nutrition to the family and better health care. Educated women also understand the significance of sending children to school, without discriminating against girls.
According to Mishra, poverty is another major deterrent when it comes to parents not enrolling their daughters in school. She says, “Given a choice parents prefer to educate their sons. If a girl is well-educated her parents have to find an even better match in a higher qualified groom. This means they will have to pay higher dowry. So instead, they keep their girls under-educated or even better – illiterate. On the other hand educating boys means that the economic condition of the family is bettered. When boys earn they contribute to the family income.”
So, in a country culturally wired to discriminate against girls, Pooja Mishra faces an uphill task of mobilizing the locals to enroll their children in the school and college.
“We had to earn their trust because locals were unable to see logic in us building a school and college in the rural area where we would not earn financial profits,” explains Mishra. “They could not understand the social significance of our venture. We started a door-to-door campaign first convincing the elders…Once their inhibitions were put to rest, they came forward and began enrolling their girls.”
In developing societies like India education alone can break the generational cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and discrimination against women. With young social entrepreneurs like Mishra and other citizens committed to bringing education to those eager to learn, India is destined to shine.
About the Author:
Lesley D. Biswas is a freelance creative writer and journalist based in Kolkata, India. She has written extensively for the past eleven years on sports, gardening, women and youth issues. Her articles have appeared both in print and online for publications such as the Woman’s Era, Reader's Digest, Funds for Writers, 4indianwoman, Kolkata Mirror and East Kolkata, among others.