Text by Gayatri Sharma of Artefacting Guwahati partner NDTV IndiaCan:
One of the issues we were discussing in our journalism classes was the alarming rate of girl child dropouts from school. The statistics are startling: the national literacy rate of girls over seven years is 54% as against 75% for boys. The national average shows that there are twice as many illiterate women as there are men. In Assam 49 percent school girls drop out after attaining puberty; lack of toilets being one of the major factors. Looking beyond the mid-day meal scheme, we realized it was time the government, along with NGOs and the community, improved the educational infrastructure to encourage girls to attend school, particularly in small towns and rural areas of Assam.
With these statistics as a backdrop, our journalism students were enthused to put their first step forward in their first mission on development issues - spreading awareness amongst the people of the region - by engaging school girls, teachers, communities, NGOs and government officials within the existing framework to fight for the fundamental rights of a girl child, and implement the Right to Education in the truest spirit.
One of the NDTV INDIACAN students was keen that we visit an all-girls’ government school in her hometown, Mangaldoi, which is a two hour drive from Guwahati. We found out that out of 800 girl students enrolled in that school, only about 500 were regular; many had dropped out after only a few years of schooling. Eighty percent children of the school belong to families from lower income groups, and we decided to visit the school to learn for ourselves whether an awareness-raising intervention we had conceived might make a tangible difference. By a happy coincidence, we met an international NGO called Artefacting - comprising a team of photographers, teachers, activists and journalists from different countries - which was in town documenting the North East region, and our team decided to collaborate with them to visit the school.
Realising that a play would be the best and strongest medium to drive a point amongst children and their parents, we decided to stage one enacted by our own students.
Our journalism student from Mangaldoi co-ordinated the trip, and as we arrived at the school gate on a sultry morning, we were overwhelmed by the sight of rows of little girls dressed in traditional attire , queuing up on both sides to welcome us, and forming a pathway to lead us into the school. The school authorities had gathered to greet us, as had the parents.
Our venue was an L-shaped school building overlooking a huge field, where a huge crowd of at least 500 -600 girl students had assembled. As we entered the complex the Headmaster announced our arrival, and the girls, who had been loitering around in the field until then, hurried to take their seats.
The girls clamoured to catch a glimpse of our international team members . For many, this was their first glimpse of white skinned people. What followed was a day long programme where every child expressed themselves through various creative forms. Little girls sang a welcome song in Assamese – roughly translated as “We will live freely; we will breathe freely…’’ While they sang, an enthusiastic bunch queued up for their solo performances of songs, dances and recitation, which they sailed through flawlessly. A local amateur theatre group named “Jagrata” came forward to participate in the “SheEducation” campaign and performed an interesting play on the theme – various forms of oppression. Their innovative idea of having actors dressed up as puppets captivated the young audience.
Then came the much awaited performance of the day - the NDTV INDIACAN students’ short play - which they had worked really hard on, spending many extra hours rehearsing after classes.
The play’s protagonist is a young girl Jyoti who comes to live with her relatives after her parents die in an accident. Her life becomes a living hell with constant humiliation by her Uncle and his wife and their spoilt son. She is ill-treated for neglecting her household chores and paying more attention to her studies.
However, Jyoti is saved when her school teacher adopts her and allows her to pursue her education. Jyoti eventually makes it to the coveted Indian Administrative Service and in time comes back as a Deputy Commissioner to her hometown. One day she is visited by her now aging Uncle and his wife, who come to the DC seeking help for their son who has been accused of murder. When they recognize Jyoti, they withdraw and try to leave. Jyoti stops them, and asks them to stay with her assuring them that she would look after them. The old couple break down asking forgiveness for their sins.
The applause grew loud when the students saw Jyoti finally join the civil services. As the play progressed it was heartening to observe the audience completely engrossed, displaying various emotions. Our actors knew they had made an impact when they saw moist eyes all around.
Once the play got over we tried to soak in as much as we could from the festive atmosphere of the school, the air abuzz with various activities. Every corner of the school was occupied by a cluster of girls either sketching, doing embroidery, making flowers and even science projects like functional table lamps. There was a palpable excitement at one end as a huge group of girls busied themselves painting a colourful mural on their school wall.
It was an eye opener for us to have these school girls, who hadn’t ever stepped out of that small remote town, voice their dreams of being scientists and computer engineers. Some students were keen to grow up to be journalists and were eager to know what stream (Science, Humanities, Commerce) our NDTV INDIACAN students had pursued in school.
Our international team members were amazed to hear 10 year old girls ask them how we could build a developed nation like theirs. Arne of Artefacting admitted that when he was their age he didn’t even know that any other country existed beyond his home town in Holland. Our girl students asking such questions at such an age was ample proof that we were already on our way to development. He promised them that they would see a fully developed nation when they reached his age – thirty-three . Arne left them with sound advice - “Just keep on asking questions in life”.
The school students gifted us with their hand prints on a scroll and the names of all the students of the school in another scroll which we brought it back along with us for display in an exhibition on the banks of the river Brahmaputra.
Finally as the sun was disappearing into the crimson sky, happy smiling faces jostled to bid us goodbye - an image I captured in my mind for all time. I earnestly hoped these faces would pursue their dreams; that their smiles didn’t fade away someday. For that the media ,the community and the government will need to join hands to create an environment that nourishes and empowers the girl child and motivate parents to ensure that their daughters go to school and complete their education.
I noticed that the budding journalists of our institute were quiet on our return journey. I hope they will not forget the Mangaldoi experience as they prepare to take on the challenges of reporting and analyzing the events that will shape the nation and the lives of her citizens. Till then,happy learning!