Combating child marriage, securing girls’ education
School: Government Higher Primary School, Budugumpa, Koppal, Karnataka
By: Rajashree Srinivasan
The School setting
Budugumpa is a small village on the outskirts of the Koppal district of Karnataka, close to the national and state highway number 19. The village comes under the Koppal block and as per the Census 2011, the total population of Budugumpa is 4,342 with 2,276 male and 2,066 female inhabitants. There is a gram panchayat, two government schools, two private schools, six medical shops but no public health facilities in the village. Owing to the backwardness in human development indicators, Koppal along with districts of Bidar, Yadgir, Raichur, Bellary and Kalburgi in the Karnataka-Hyderabad region has been given a special status under Article 371j of the Constitution of India. With respect to education, this Article provides for a reservation of seats in educational and vocational training institutions (by birth or domicile).
The Government Higher Primary School (GHPS) at Budugumpa is tucked away in a quiet T-end of a street with houses lined on either side. The teachers speak proudly of the large number of students in their school. There are 693 children (384 boys and 309 girls) and 13 teachers. Most children come from the Budugumpa village but some also hail from the adjoining taluks and stay at the government hostel close to the school. Many teachers travel from the main Koppal town, which is about 25 kilometres away. Parents of children are mostly agricultural labourers; a few are land-owners and contractors. The eight classrooms for grades I-VIII, the Principal’s office, the kitchen to prepare the mid-day meals and a room which houses the Teacher Learning Centre of the Azim Premji Foundation, all open into a playground. There are separate toilets for teachers and students. The school has no potable water. Most classrooms do not have desks and benches and the majority of the children do not have footwear. But the constraints of their circumstances have failed to stifle the vibrant spirit of the children of the Budugumpa School. Their chatter emerging from the classrooms and the playground, the smiles on their faces, their mischief-laden eyes and their curiosity to make conversations with visitors offer an exciting invitation to the observer into their world of learning, and at the same time, it also gently nudges one to reflect on the depth, vastness and richness of human experience and the resilience of people living on the margins of society.
Prakash: A personal sketch
Science teacher, Prakash, who holds a TCH (Teacher Certificate Higher) hails from the Chitradurga district. Due to his family’s difficult financial circumstances, he had to start earning while he was still in college. Prakash shared the trials and tribulations of his young adult days of poverty and his difficult journey of joining the teaching profession. He spoke of how keen he had been to become a teacher, especially, to teach children from poor backgrounds and how, eventually, he overcame legal barriers to his appointment. In 2002, he was posted to the Budugumpa School, as a science teacher. Prakash, currently, teaches mathematics and science for the primary classes.
Prakash’s vision of education is aimed at the well-being of children. He wants a society that is just to these children from poor families and works incessantly to promote the continuation of children’s education, especially, that of girls. I have chosen two significant aspects of his work, namely, stopping child marriages and his passion for science teaching, to highlight his commitment towards education and children. To narrate these, Prakash’s work is conceptualized as ‘with children outside the classroom’ and ‘with children inside the classroom’ and invites the reader to view his professional work of teaching children on a continuum.
With children outside the classroom
Prakash has played a key role in supporting girls’ education in Koppal. The practice of child marriage persists even today in and around the Koppal area, in a direct violation of human rights. Girls are married off when they are in upper primary or high school. Many families stop the education of their girls after grade X. The drop-outs have not dropped out of school voluntarily but have been ‘pushed out’ of schools (Sinha and Reddy, 2011) owing to the complex matrix of deep-rooted cultural practices, gender biases, economic difficulties and lack of awareness about the negative impacts of child marriage. These young children are, thus, out of the school system for no fault of theirs. This practice renders the girl-child voiceless on issues involving her right over her mind and body. While the practice is fading, according to Prakash, it has not stopped. What does Prakash do to retain these first-generation school-goers in school and to attend to this unrelenting injustice towards young girls?
Prakash has played a central role in creating awareness about the illegality and negative impacts of child marriages. He has also stopped several such marriages. When he came to know that a grade IX girl was to be married, he met her parents and over several meetings, managed to convince them to cancel the wedding. That girl is now in her PUC (Pre-University Course). In another instance, the girl was in high school and had been engaged for two years. Her groom was an alcoholic. Even though the girl was doing well in academics, her family decided to discontinue her education and get her married. Prakash intervened and the engagement was called off. That girl, too, is currently, studying in higher secondary. In yet another situation, Prakash, aware of the fact that the elder daughter in a family had been married off early, took pro-active steps when the younger one attained menarche. When her family began talking about her marriage, Prakash met the parents, mobilized financial support, assured the family of all support and had them call the marriage off. It was only when the girl turned 18, that she was married.
Prakash has also stopped boys from getting married so that they may continue their education. These and many other instances that Prakash shared, highlight the magnitude of the challenge and the daunting tasks he faces in the school and the community. Contrary to research studies, Prakash does not allude to the absence of an exclusive girls’ school as the reason for the discontinuation of girls’ education and early child marriages. He says, large family size, gruelling poverty, lack of space in homes, many children to educate, lack of awareness about children’s health and future, the influence of families in which girls are married off early, are the real reasons. For parents, it is a means to reduce the family burden.
What motivates Prakash to go against prevailing practices and push for the education of girls? What are the arguments against child marriage that he propounds to parents and their girl-children? What does he specifically do to stop these marriages? What preventive and supportive measures does he take at the school? What support does he have to boldly stand-up against a community’s cultural practices? These are some of the questions that come to mind while hearing Prakash narrate these instances.
Prakash’s passion for children’s education and well-being seems to provide impetus to his work. He says, ‘The well-being of children is the core of education. Girls need to be made independent.’ His primary approach seems to be one of direct interaction with children. Very often, Prakash spends 10-15 minutes of his class in talking about the importance and value of education, and in the process, opens up conversations with children about the consequences of child marriage and tells the girls, in particular, about the need for them to postpone early marriage, continue education and become independent. Thus, the first lesson in changing mindsets begins in the classroom. Children freely discuss marriages in their own and other families. There are instances when parents approach him to inform or take his guidance regarding their child’s future. His responses often begin with making them aware of the illegality of child marriage, its consequences on children’s health and the need for girls to complete high school.
When Prakash gets to know of a family’s intention to get their child married off, he takes proactive steps—visits the family, tells them about the legal consequences, talks to them about the continuation of education through Article 371j, enquires if they have financial problems and attempts to bring girls back to school. Sometimes, he chides the parents for perpetuating such a shameful practice; at other times, he threatens them with legal action. To parents who plead with him to attend his student’s marriage, he flatly refuses, saying he will not be an accomplice to a heinous crime. To the families who want their boys married off early, he warns them they will be charged under the POCSO Act. In the process, sometimes, he is humiliated by parents who sarcastically ask if he would take care of their families and children. But Prakash does not seem to be perturbed by this and remarks, ‘There are many things that are negative in the society but I will continue to be myself.’
Respect from parents and community members encourages him to work towards minimizing drop-outs from the school. He gained the community’s goodwill and trust when he facilitated the process of getting voter identity cards for several people in the community. He spoke about the support he receives from the members of the Azim Premji Foundation through the Teacher Learning Centre. Prakash finds his peers cooperative and helpful in the work he engages in.
With respect to human dignity and life, the denial of the right to make choices and decisions is a cause for great concern. It urges one to wonder what the aspirations of the last person in the queue are? Do undesirable social practices put an end to the aspirations of parents keen on schooling and education for their children? Prakash’s narratives do not reveal pessimism regarding the aspirations of parents. Compared to the early 2000s, when Prakash joined the school and parents did not to want to educate their children, (especially, in higher classes) things seem to have changed and there is a steady increase in the number of boys who have gone to pursue degrees from colleges in Koppal. What remains for a deeper inquiry is the further education of girls. Would the provisions of Article 371j that offer equitable opportunities in education and vocational training, encourage parents to educate their children? While Prakash’s actions are geared towards this, mindsets of people ingrained in certain socio-cultural practices and the lack of awareness about the burden of large families, do pose a challenge.
Prakash’s concern for his students continues even after they have passed out of his school. He keeps track of those completing primary school and follows-up at the high school close-by to check for their continuity in schooling. If the children living in the hostel (around one hundred boys) do not turn up in school, he calls the warden to check. Prakash has also been struggling to get land to expand the school into a high school. He repeatedly spoke of his dream to start a high school which can provide access to more children. To realize this dream, he is working closely with the community members.
With children inside the classroom
Prakash is passionate about teaching mathematics and science. He believes: 1) Teaching science in interesting ways in early years may help students pursue mathematics and science in higher education; 2) If children gain interest in mathematics, then all other subjects will be of interest to them. His interest in mathematics teaching is evident from observing his class.
The clock was close to lunch-time when he insisted that we join him in his classroom. He was lively and attempted to involve each child in a class of 49 children with an almost equal number of boys and girls. Children listened with rapt attention and actively participated in his class on ‘Fractions’. He started with examples related to their fields and crops etc., and the class responded to his questions in chorus. He showed concrete materials and then gradually, led them towards the abstraction of the concept. He called children to the board and made them demonstrate their learning. Prakash shared that every Wednesday, students take to the front of the classroom to express their curiosity and interest in science. They are encouraged to bring an object of their interest to class and tell the class about it. Prakash believes that children acquire knowledge when they touch, feel and act on an object and are able to understand ‘causes and reasons’ when they manipulate it.
Prakash ensures active participation of children from his school in science exhibitions in other schools near the Koppal town. Despite the fact that this entails a huge responsibility—taking them in an auto on a long stretch of the highway and bringing them safely back to their parents. He wishes to create an album of photographs of his school children engaged in demonstrating experiments in these science exhibitions so that it may motivate all children to take a keener interest in science. A very interesting initiative by him is the creation of a galaxy in a small room in the school. Prakash wanted his children to experience the ‘night sky’, so they made holes on the roof of a dark room and the children learnt to explain the entire solar system through this work.
The social sensitivity that Prakash carries, coupled with his ability to align the curricular and pedagogic practices to the socio-economic contexts, is central to his teaching. Most of the efforts made by Prakash can be emulated by other teachers. It requires a constant yearning for renewal. Prakash has a love for learning and acquiring new knowledge. He attends the Teacher Learning Centre meetings regularly and encourages other teachers to participate too. He also reaches out to the members of the District Institute of the Azim Premji Foundation when he faces doubts in his subject. Prakash is the recipient of several state and district level awards for science teaching and has been honoured by the community as the ‘Best Teacher’ five times.
Linking the continuum
Prakash’s own experiences of a difficult early life seem to have shaped the way he views children from the marginalized sections. Empathy, care and concern are reflected in his interactions with these children. He holds a deep sense of obligation towards children’s learning and development. The professional ‘ideal of service’, often highlighted in the context of teaching and medical professions is exemplified in his words when he says, ‘My service is for the well-being of children.’ It is clear from the conversations with Prakash that he does not hold a narrow view of teaching as a set of activities or techniques. Teaching, to him, is a relational practice and his relationship with his students is characterized by the relational values of care, warmth and empathy. It is a personal relationship of care because the need to care and be cared for is a fundamental human quality (Nel Noddings, 1992). While Prakash’s words and actions make us settle for a care-based argument about his teaching, he swiftly remarks, ‘Since we have children from different sections of the society, I need to be fair with them and I want to reach out to every child in the best way. Every child should have access to schooling.’ Clearly, for this teacher in Budugumpa, care and justice are the faces of the same coin, reflecting his moral orientation towards teaching.
In Prakash, one meets a deeply reflective mind. ‘Experience alone,’ John Dewey reminds us, ‘is hollow without reflection’. A sense of self-awareness and reflexivity is displayed in the range of educational judgments that he has to make in challenging situations, every day. Interactions with parents, colleagues and administrators have offered him an array of experiences to gain an understanding of himself and his role as a teacher. But what keeps Prakash going is encapsulated in his own words, ‘Children’s love, and respect of the community is all that I want…The school for me is a place of worship and my children are gods.’
In an era when the public discourse is one of dismissiveness of the government school system; shutting down of public schools; growing disdain for teachers; low numbers of those who want to join the teaching profession, coupled with an increasing enchantment of private schools, indeed, there is more that needs to be done to protect the public education system, which a majority of the country’s children from the marginalized section attend. Children here are aware of their gruelling poverty, social evils, ill-health and poor nutrition. The promise of education to be an ‘equaliser of opportunity’ requires greater attention than any time before, if democracy is to flourish. While recognizing that some of these schools continue to have collapsing infrastructures, absence of learning materials, and inadequate number of teachers, the presence of a caring, committed and persevering adult in the school probably seems to matter a lot in preventing children from being ‘pushed’ out of the education system and in ensuring their continuity of education.
A host of factors seem to influence the social sensitivity and caring for children’s learning that characterize Prakash’s work as a teacher. The teacher’s own life circumstances, children’s reciprocation of his care, goodwill of the community, parents’ respect, collegial peer group, his personal and professional knowledge, his attention to his own professional development, self-awareness, critical reflection and passion for teaching provide a tentative framework in understanding the work of teachers who go ‘against the grain’ in ensuring inclusion in the public schools. Building on teachers’ strengths may advance an alternative vision of what is worth cherishing in public school education (Nieto, 2003).
Acknowledgements: The interaction with Prakash, Science Teacher, Government Higher Primary School, Budugumpa took place at the Teacher Learning Centre of Azim Premji Foundation, which is located on the school premises. Usha and Raza (Members of District Institute, Azim Premji Foundation, Koppal) and I interacted with Prakash. We thank the children and teachers of the school for their conversations with us. We thank Prakash for sharing his professional journey with us.
Rajashree Srinivasan, Faculty, Azim Premji University
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: MacMillan
Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press.
Sinha and Reddy (2011). School Dropouts or ‘pushouts’? Overcoming barriers for the Right of Education. In R. Govinda (eds). Who goes to School? Exploring Exclusion in Indian Education. (pp166-204). New Delhi: Oxford University Press