An event called ‘Navjyoti' was organised by UNICEF in collaboration with DD Sahyadri to honour these girls from Maharashtra

For the many poor girls who drop out of school in Maharashtra's rural hinterland, there are those who decide to stay. And then there are those who stage a comeback.

It's what Lata Batku did, after being forced to drop out of school to take care of her baby sister. Her village in the Naxal-dominated district of Gadchiroli, she says, is quiet and removed from the conflict, but lacks adequate medical facilities. This has prompted Lata, 15, a class VIII student, to make a career choice.

“I want to become a doctor and open a dispensary in my village,” she says. “My parents agreed when I told them.”

Her parents are farm labourers and cattle-grazers. She has five sisters, of whom one has a speech disability. Lata got herself enrolled in school and stays at a hostel in Bhamragad taluka in Gadchiroli.

Lata is among a group of nine girls who were felicitated at ‘Navjyoti', an event which aims to honour the initiatives taken by girls despite their struggles, in Mumbai over the weekend. The event was organised by UNICEF in collaboration with DD Sahyadri, an arm of Doordarshan. Says Vandana Khare, UNICEF's communication consultant: “Our criteria have been marginal and include adivasi communities, those with a disability, or having leadership qualities. This is the eighth year we are holding this event.”

“Their struggle should reach the people,” says Ms. Khare.

Radha Shinde, 14, the child of migrant construction workers, from Hiradpuri village in Jalna district, is happy to have been honoured. Her mother, Sakubai Shinde, though, is concerned about the wages foregone.

“The sun is shining high and I am thinking how much work I could have finished by now. Both my husband and I earn Rs.150 a day,” she says.

Till Radha was about 10, she travelled all over the State with her itinerant parents — to Mumbai, Ahmednagar, Nanded and Nashik.

But when the local school told Radha's parents to get her enrolled, her fate would be altered. Radha and her little sister, younger than her by three years, were then both catapulted to class five. Her older sister and brother were not so lucky. They are illiterate and work as labourers, she says.

Radha is a State-level player in Kho-kho, football, athletics, wrestling. She is confident that her sporting ability would stand her in good stead for a career in the police force or competitive sports, choices her mother is reluctant to bless.

Vidya Ambhore, born to farm labourers, has an affinity for sports, but knows the value of formal education in her situation. “She taunts her brother, saying, ‘You failed because you did not study.' Girls have the will to study. Boys don't,” says Vidya's proud mother Shobha Ambhore.

Jyotsna Magare, 17, from Chandrapur, is clear about the life she “does not want to lead”. She has seen girls in her village drop out of school, face the health hazards of early marriages, fall into the dowry trap and remain ignorant of government schemes. Studying Arts in class XII and aspiring to become a teacher, Jyotsna has become the envy of her friends.

“Parents don't send their daughters to school at all,” observes sister Prerna Dias from the NGO Asha Deep in Latur district. “In the village of Neelganga alone, where I work, we have 35 girl dropouts. Schools are there, but most don't study beyond Class VIII or IX.”

To ask Kanti Padavi, 19, what it took her to score 97 per cent in class XII and make it to first year BSc. is to drive her to tears. It has nothing to do with plodding through Math equations or juggling school and private tuitions. With both parents leaving her at a tender age, being able to go to school meant working as a domestic during the day and making good every penny eked.

Cooking, cleaning and washing that earned her Rs.300 a month. It meant spending summer vacations in mango orchards — peeling and cutting raw mangoes for pickles through the day — from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. and from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. It earned her about Rs.25 a day for these two shifts.

“Sometimes I did not even have Rs.10 to go to school,” she says, as her eyes well up. Financial and other support from her relatives helped her. But Kanti has no idea what her share in her father's ten-acre farmland, which her relatives have tilled, would be.

Legging it fine

Shireen Tabassum, 17, does not seem to struggle at all. Born without arms and one leg, she effortlessly writes, draws, cooks, stitches, eats, and studies — all with her left leg. “I can naturally do everything on my own. I have had no training,” she says.

Her talent is evident as she stood first in mehendi competition in her locality and does not require a writer to assist her during examinations.

It remains to be seen how Shireen will pick up the gift of a wrist watch at Friday's felicitation.

  • Our criteria include Adivasis, those with a disability or leadership qualities: UNICEF official
  • Some families stand to suffer loss of income due to their child's educational aspirations