Helping girls to study rather than become child brides

By David Reid

  • Published
Media caption,

Bhagwanti Lassi Ram is one of those being helped by Educate Girls

Until you see it, it is difficult to conceive how much work many Rajasthani girls have to do before they go to school.

For some, their chores take precedence and school is a last priority. But one organisation is pushing to encourage up to three million girls to see just how studying can change their lives forever.

Bhagwanti Lassi Ram's typical day starts early with cooking flat roti bread; she delicately flips the bread, careful not to scorch her fingertips on the smoking hot plate.

Then it is off to feed the chickens and wash the cooking vessels.

All the time her father reminds her - and us - of her next chore.

"She needs to take the goats to the field," he says, "they can't wait".

Eventually she's free to pull a comb through her hair, fold her neck scarf into a sharp "V" at the front as schoolgirls do here and heave her bag onto her back for the 4km (2.4 miles) trip to school.

"Many girls in our village don't go to school because it's too far," she says.

"If we had a school that taught children up to the age of 15 in our village, more girls would study." she adds.

"Girls are scared to go to school, as you have to cross a highway where many drunk drivers pass by."

In letting his daughter go to school, Bhagwanti's father is pretty progressive compared to many others in the village.

Missing schoolgirls

The group, Educate Girls, runs teams of volunteers who go into villages to find the girls who are not in school. They talk to families about the importance of sending girls to school and draw up a plan with the community to enrol them.

The volunteers work with schools to make sure they are equipped with toilets - they also tutor girls and run classes in English, Maths and Hindi.

So far they have helped millions of children and been responsible for enrolling 150,000 girls at school.

Meena Bhati from Educate Girls, takes us to a house where four girls in the family were married at an early age.

Now a fifth has been taken out of school after being married off at the age of 14.

Image caption,
Educate Girls volunteer Meena goes door-to-door persuading families to put girls back into school

"Here parents feel there is no point educating a girl," says Meena.

"She's there to do housework, and look after cattle and take care of younger children, while the parents go to work as farmers or labourers. For a girl, education is a waste of time."

Safeena Husain, who set up Educate Girls believes she could only do whatever she wanted to in life because of her education.

There are estimated to be three million girls aged 10-14 not in school in India.

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Child brides

One of the main things holding other girls back from getting an education is early marriage.

"In Rajasthan, 50-60% of girls are married below the age of 18. A lot of children - about 10-15% - are married below the age of 10," Safeena says.

According to Unicef, India has more child brides than any other country. Nearly half of all living Indian women were married below the official legal age of 18.

Image caption,
Neelam was barred from attending school by her in-laws after marrying at 14 but is now an education champion

One member of the Educate Girls team with first-hand insight into the pressures many of these girls live with is Neelam Vaishnav. She was married off at 14 to her sister-in-law's brother.

According to tradition she moved in with her husband's family, but with the understanding that she would be able to continue going to school. When they reneged on that promise, she decided it was time to bring the marriage to an end.

"When I decided to get divorced I faced lot of problems. Everyone in the village kept taunting me, calling me names. They still do it in fact. My in-laws accused me of being characterless and having no shame."

Greatest assets

Meanwhile at school Bhagwanti is looking to the future: "I want to become a teacher after studying and teach other girls because when you are educated you have courage," she says. "If I can stand on my own feet and find a job, I'll be able to support my family financially."

This is music to the ears of Safeena who strongly believes that because women play such a crucial role in families' health and nutrition, educating girls would solve many of India's most pressing problems.

According to Unesco, every extra year of education a mother has reduces infant mortality by 5-10% and raises her lifetime earnings by 20%.

"You name any development indicator and it can be improved by girls education - so actually girls are the greatest asset we have," she says.

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