By: Shobha Shukla, CNS

It is disheartening just how little it takes to save the life of a girl in India, and how much it can mean to society. This is the story of Razia, a girl from a village in the poverty-stricken state of Uttar Pradesh. 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. 

Traditionally in a village like Bahpur, where even finding the next meal is replete with uncertainty, girls aren’t educated. Poverty had prevented Razia’s elder brothers from studying beyond class 2 – about age 10. They felt better off trying to outeke a living to supplement the family income.

But luck and determination gave Razia a way out — and fostered a heartening story for International Women’s Day, today, March 8. The Malala Fund, established by Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani student who became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize winner after surviving an assassination attempt by the Taliban, and her father Zaiuddin, as well as  Oxfam India and Nav Bharat Samaj Kalyan Samiti (NBSKS), a voluntary literacy group, led a campaign in Uttar Pradesh to promote girls’ education.

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 create gender-friendly environments in schools, track dropout children and support them in improving their skills.

This, along with 2009 legislation that guarantees eight years of continued free education for all children from 6 to 14 years, presented Razia with the opportunity to go to school. She seized it.

The family’s land, equivalent to 1,615 sq meters, the sale of milk of their sole buffalo and her mother’s sporadic earnings as a farm and construction laborer almost always fell short. Razia had to go hungry at times and  work alongside her mother to supplement the meager family finances. As girls must, she had to do all household chores while attending school, and study under candlelight as there was no electricity.

That was a considerable price for Razia to pay. But in return she got the gift of education. When she reached the senior secondary stage, her mother and brothers said there was no need for her to study any more. But Rehana Rehman of NBSKS came to her rescue, explaining the importance of education for girls and managed to get her parents’ consent for Razia to continue with her studies in an upper primary school of a nearby village. Today, at age 14 Razia is steadily inching towards her dream of becoming a teacher.

Razia is bright, taking part in all school activities. She is not scared to speak her mind in front of others. This trait has helped her to convince other girls to get an education. That has put her among the chosen girl-leaders from Moradabad district who are tracking out-of-school Muslim children and motivating them to join school.

India’s 2011 census ranks Uttar Pradesh 29th in literacy among the 35 states with a literacy rate of 70 percent, below the national average of 74 percent. Moradabad district’s literacy rate is even lower at 58.7 percent, and features a huge gender gap – male literacy is 66.8 percent, female literacy only 49.6 percent.

A recent survey conducted by Oxfam India and the State Collective for Right to Education (SCoRE) in the region found that girls drop out of school to take care of younger siblings, because separate toilets are nonexistent, the schools are too far away and/or they must help supplement family income. A patriarchal mindset, often resulting in child marriage, also prevents girls, especially Muslim girls, to continue with mainstream education, keeping them tied to household chores. Moreover, education is not free beyond class 8, a deterrent for poor families.

It was no different for Razia. Her elder brothers discouraged her schooling. Even neighbors advised her parents to discontinue her studies. Razia resents the inequality that society fosters between girls and boys, who 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 says only education can provide a new and progressive way of thinking.

“Our parents were illiterate,” she said. “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 wisdom indeed from a teenager.

Razia’s simple request to the government is to make education free for girls till class 12 and to open more higher-secondary schools for them in their neighborhoods. Currently there is just one Intermediate college for girls which is 15-20 km away from many villages of that area, and there is no mode of direct transport. This further acts as a damper for girls to continue their education after class 8.

The RTE Act –India’s Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act – makes government accountable for providing eight years of free and compulsory education but even after seven years of its implementation only 6.4 percent of Uttar Pradesh schools are RTE compliant.

Although access to equitable quality education is an issue for both girls and boys, the situation is more challenging for girls. Oxfam India, with the support of the Malala Foundation has initiated a state- wide campaign on girls’ education. This year the campaign is working with 20 schools in Moradabad district. The aim is to Increase its ambit to cover pre-primary to higher secondary level education, implement the act’s provisions, and promote girls’ education to reduce inequality.  

Razia’s story doesn’t end here. Rather it spells the beginning of a new dawn. It shows that 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.

Shobha Shukla is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and writes on health and gender justice issues. Follow her on Twitter @shobha1shukla or visit the CNS website.