But for a government scholarship scheme, 16-year-old Nisha Verma, who dreams of becoming a college professor, would have dropped out of school and been married by now. Her parents were not interested in spending money on her education.
A resident of Alai village in Alwar district's Rajgarh tehsil, Nisha availed of the pre-matric scholarship to complete her secondary education with the help of Udaan, a women's empowerment programme. Her father, a goat herder, told her that he would get her married if she failed in her class. Nisha took tuitions using the scholarship money and is at present studying in Class XI at Gyandeep School near her village.
“The Udaan team's guidance has helped me cross many hurdles; I love teaching and I want to make sure that girls don't quit their education,” said Nisha, while recounting her struggle to continue education in adverse circumstances.
For many more girls like Nisha in the rural areas, the possibility of dropping out of schools increased due to poverty during the pandemic.
Monika, a Class X student from Noor Nagar village in Kishangarh Bas tehsil, was asked by her family to stop going to school and instead be at her in-law’s place after her early marriage. The scholarship provided a safety net as Monika's teachers convinced her parents to allow her to study with the help of the bursary amount.
Despite difficult financial conditions, Monika's parents have since delayed her gauna [consummation of marriage at the marital home] and agreed to support her studies. Activists who made multiple visits to her house also sensitised the family about the dangers of early pregnancy. “They broke several myths, including how the chances of giving birth to a baby boy decline as the age of a woman increases,” Monika said.
The Udaan project, launched by the Rajasthan government in collaboration with a development consulting group ‘IPE Global’, has made attempts to keep girls in schools through their enrolment at the secondary level while ensuring that the eligible ones among them get their scholarships. While generating awareness about scholarship schemes, the programme has also mobilised rural communities to support girls’ education and facilitate their attendance in school without a break.
Navendu Sharma, the District Scholarship Mitra in Alwar of IPE Global, told The Hindu that the government's scholarships were available to the girls belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and minority communities. Daughters of labourers holding Shramik cards were also eligible to receive scholarships and other facilities, he said.
“Our project has strengthened the scholarship delivery system, partly through IT-enabled services, and brought girls back to secondary schools through sustained efforts,” Mr. Sharma said.
The social mobilisation strategies include a continuous dialogue with Panchayati Raj institutions to identify dropouts and counselling the parents and students as well.
Under-Graduate student, Aarti, said the glitches in the scholarship dispensing system could not be independently fixed by the rural communities. An e-mitra camp organised as part of Udaan helped her receive the bursary amount in her bank account. “In our patriarchal milieu, spending my own money on math tuition, new clothes, books and slippers was life-changing,” she said.
The programme has not only mitigated social barriers to girls' education in Alwar and other districts such as Dholpur, Dausa, Karauli and Tonk, but has also made interventions for behavioural change. Wherever needed, it has also provided essential adolescent sexual and reproductive health education to the girls.
IPE Global's Project Director for Udaan, Ashish Mukherjee, said the scholarships and educational guidance has helped several rural families, often constrained by finances, to support their children's education. “The financial relief they get allows them to use the family income for other essential requirements such as nutritious food and medicines,” he said.
“When girls are left behind, it impacts future generations, perpetuates poverty and patriarchal control, curtails women’s participation in the workforce and increases gender imbalance,” Mr. Mukherjee said. Education through scholarships and access to healthcare would lead to women's empowerment and increase their active engagement in the society, he added.