India: Community empowerment in rural Rajasthan

A number of statistics and fundamental issues have stuck with me on this trip, screaming to be heard through the copious notes, meetings with staff and personal stories. Like, for instance, the appalling reality that 2 million children die each year in India, due to hunger or mainly preventable diseases. How can it be that this is tolerated in a country of a bourgeoning, affluent middle class, and where the right to life has been enshrined in national law?

Another has grabbed me today – that despite The Right to Education Act being passed in India in 2009, at a state level in Rajasthan (Western India), where we will be visiting for three days, literacy rates are among the lowest in the country, at just 60%. This falls to just 43% for girls.

Today has been dominated by our visit to a Save the Children education programme in Mewat District – a predominantly Muslim area three hours drive from Jaipur – where we are working with a local partner in 90 remote villages high above the dusty plains.

The whole point of the Right to Education Act  is to address the crucial issues of equity and inclusion, to ensure that all children in India have access to an education between ages 6-14.

And yet, despite this, overall literacy rates in some of these villages fall between just 0-8%, with girl faring the worst due to religious, social and cultural factors.

So what are we doing to help communities hold the government to account? Crucially, we saw that we’re mobilising parents and community leaders to take ownership of their children’s education.

Greeted warmly at a small school in one village by the School Management Committee, we learnt that 153 children go to school here. Despite the Right to Education Act saying that the ratio of teachers to students should be 1:30, these children have just two teachers between them– and neither are female or can speak Urdu, the third language of the area.

But the problems don’t end there – there isn’t a separate toilet for girls (another provision for of the Education Act), water scarcity is such an issue that it prevents children coming, and even when they get to school, the standard of teaching is so poor that many children don’t progress.

The role of Save the Children and our partners is remarkable – and isn’t what many define as a typical understanding of ‘charity’. Instead of directly resolving these problems through say, building a toilet or recruiting teachers, we’re building the capacity, confidence and knowledge of the parents themselves, empowering them to demand action themselves from local politicians and the education administration.

Every parent in the group wanted to tell their story and we were bowled over by their eagerness to fight for their children’s right to education.

Memorably we heard how the group are demanding a female teacher from the local government and a separate female toilet, and how one woman is challenging politicians to build a local secondary school so her daughter can keep on with her education past the age of 14 – really powerful stuff.

Secondly, we saw that we’re sensitizing and mobilising children to fight for their right to education through the formation and support of Children’s Collectives – a bit like School Councils in the UK.

Dozens of children, including girls, sat in a circle in a dusty field waiting for us. We learned how the collective was formed 18 months ago because many of the children in these villages had never been to school, were irregular attendees or dropped out all together.

Now they take care of each other, keep a check on each other’s attendance and even visit the families of peers who’ve been absent from school. If teachers don’t show up, they also speak to members of our partner SMC and ask for action. Isn’t that fantastic?

Salim Khan (aged 11), is the head of the collective and is a real leader in the making. When we asked him about their education, he replied: “We understand the importance of education in life – if educated, we will bring respect to the village, and earn respect for ourselves.”

We left the village with the children’s chant – led by Salim – ringing in our ears. “Education is our right. We are not begging. Education is our one property, it is our right. We will fight for it.”

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