A chance meeting with the 22-year-old Kajal Khatoon, the Kung Fu gold medallist at the National Championship 2017, is one I will remember for a long time. Her gleaming eyes exuded a mix of surprise and excitement, on being told she is an inspiration for many. Despite having heard this countless times in the last few months, she would emanate the same enthusiasm every time, her mother beamed. Kajal, shedding off a bit of exhilaration, shared she is grateful for the appreciation but, more importantly, it is reminiscent of her journey; of growing up in a notorious street in Sonagachi in Kolkata, Asia’s largest red-light district, of proving dozens of people wrong, of being free from stereotypes and prejudice, of emerging victorious.
Kajal’s childhood was laced with abject poverty, an alcoholic father and bleak opportunities. The environment, however, did not deter her resolve to study. After taking her board examinations from a Madarsa in Basirhat, where her mother had sent her, she returned to pursue her high school in Kolkata. Her father’s untimely demise, however, put a dent to her dreams and she had to drop out and work in tailoring to aid to the family income. But being the born fighter that she is, she started a career in sales and that is when she got in touch with one of CRY supported projects—Sanlaap, which works towards child rights while intervening in the red-light areas in and around Kolkata.
Soon, she not only re-enrolled in school, studying in the 12th grade currently, but also undertook training in hotel management. This multi-tasker even took training in Kung Fu and she was selected for the prestigious National Championship 2017 in Guwahati where she won a gold medal.
Working on ground, we have witnessed innumerable such stories where girl children have broken free from gender discrimination, have opportunities to finish education and flourish to their full potential.
But let’s think of it this way. On the brink of being independent for 70 years, isn’t it ironic that such stories of empowerment are seen as something out of the ordinary, when this should ideally have been the norm.
Girl children still face discrimination owing to their gender, millions getting married off early, forced into child labour, and not able to finish education. Less than one-third of the population of girl children in India finish their education age-appropriately. There are close to 90 lakh child brides in India.
What does seven decades of freedom mean to 12-year-old Kunti, residing in a village in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh, if the reason she cannot go to school is lack of easy access to an upper primary school which is located 10-km from her house—lack of physical access is one of the major reasons why girl children drop out of school. The distance to upper primary or secondary schools poses a safety concern and they have no option but to discontinue schooling as there is no mode of transport they can afford. Instances of child marriages spike up due to this. It isn’t a surprise that Kunti has started to learn how to sew and her parents are looking for a groom for her. Her dream, albeit, was to become a doctor someday.
Drop-out rate of girls shoots up after primary education, up to which the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act applies. Net enrolment ratio for girl children dips from 88.7% at primary to 51.93% at secondary and to a dismal 32.6% at higher secondary levels. Roughly one in every five girls enrolled drop out after class 8.
We have seen the change when girls are given access to higher education. The opening of a secondary school in our intervention area in Belgaum in Karnataka resulted in changing the education demographic of girl children in the community as instances of child marriage came down drastically and most girls enrolled to finish schooling.
The government has time and again emphasised on girl children—a slew of schemes started specifically for them. The intent is there, it is the implementation that evades millions of these girl children depriving them of basic rights. There is an urgent need to ensure access to schools, and safety and transport for the girl children when the distance to educational institute is long. The policies must consider various challenges faced by girl children and help them to overcome the same. While easy access to schools must be a priority, the issue of safety needs to be looked into seriously. The recent decision by the UP government to incorporate self-defence training for girls is plausible.
Poverty is also an important factor, therefore universalisation of education at the secondary level is essential to ensure children finish schooling. The importance of the same was first mentioned in 2005 in a Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) committee report. Also, investing in research to fill in gender data gaps is essential to access the situation and devise strategies accordingly.
A recent read on how Japan Railways did not shut one of their train stations as it was still being used by a single high school student reinforced my belief that a government’s will can bring out a transformative change. The Prime Minister recently talked about this Independence Day being the ‘Sankalp Parva’, dedicated towards a new India. Let’s hope this resolve to transform India in the next five years also holds true for the millions of girl children who deserve to be free, independent, with their basic rights upheld at every stage of their life.
The author, Puja Marwaha is chief executive officer, CRY—Child Rights and You