Kunti Devi is a mother of eight. Her brood includes three girls. Her daily drill begins at 4 a.m. and seldom varies: Get up, wash utensils, clean the house, cook food and prepare her daughters for school. Her eldest daughter is in Class IX, the second in Class VIII and her youngest, Lagni Kumari (12), is in Class III at the local primary school.
Their father, Siya Sharan Manjhi, is a musahar by caste, lowest of the low in the caste hierarchy of Bihar. Musahars or rat catchers of village Govindpur musahari, have been classified as mahadalits or the most depressed, in the State.
Literacy is rare in this caste group. The 2011 census pegs their literacy rate at 11.1 per cent although for women, it is 3.8 per cent. Caste and gender come in the way of educating the Musahars with women bearing the brunt of neglect.
“It is a struggle to send all the daughters to school as they lend a hand in the household chores. But if I could get one of them to become something, my struggle would have been worth the while,” says Kunti Devi, as she slaps cowdung on her mud walls. The cowdung cake hardened under the sun fuels the hearth and her family.
“Sukhi roti khayenge, lekin betiyon ko school padhne bhejenge (We will have dry chapattis but will send our girls to school),” she murmurs. Lagni Kumari and her two elder sisters are first-generation school goers in their family.
Although she is unlettered, Ms. Devi says that today she feels proud when she sees her daughters read letters in books and read signboards, adding that education is a must to get ahead in life. She also spends Rs. 200 every month on private tuition for her daughters.
“I work extra hard by selling buffalo milk; the money comes in handy. And sometimes, for the sake of my daughter, I make do with one meal,” she says.
Lagni Kumari wants to become a police constable while her elder sisters want to be a teacher like the school principal Sudha Kumari.
At the government run primary school in Phulwarisharief block there are 53 girls on the rolls out of total strength of 98. The school often doubles up as a stable for the grazing goats and cows; offering shelter to sundry other animals during the monsoons.
The children sit on the bare floors with their books spread out. Classes I to V are held in one room as the school has only two rooms. The school has two teachers, and a principal.
However, there is a surprise: For the last nine years, the dropouts have been almost negligible and girls attend more regularly than boys. The boys are often engaged in the illicit mahua trade while the girls sent to school.
School Principal Ms. Kumari says, “Parents have to be convinced regularly to send their children to school…every Saturday I call parents of my students to the school and interact with them while convincing them about why sending their children to school is important.”
Yet, the teacher will tell you that even if two students out of 98 make it to college, that is no mean achievement. The odds of a girl being one of those two appear daunting.
The reasons for this become apparent from a survey four years ago, which was based on a sample of 8,903 children from the extremely backward communities studying in Classes I to V in government primary and primary with upper primary schools in two districts of Bihar.
This study found that 42 per cent of the sampled children were first-time school goers and 75 per cent of the sample were children from families where the mother had never been to school.
The Nitish Kumar government had given bicycles to girl students as incentive to get them to school but the real challenge lies in convincing the mothers to send their girl child to school.
Combining adult literacy and compulsory schooling for students from the extremely backward communities will be real test for the state government.