As if in answer, a lady in her mid-fifties, Zaibun Noor, steps out from the house and offers a warm welcome. While opening the door of the baithak (drawing room), she informs us that a total of 19 members live in this house and they own much of the agricultural land around. Of her three sons, one works in the police department and has two wives. The second son, a matriculate who is in the money-lending business, has an 18 year-old wife who is already a mother of two. As she gets involved in the animated conversation, it is difficult to figure whether she was happy or sad, for a discussion on education leaves everyone in shock — none of the women members of the family was ever enrolled in school. Until the recent generation of the grandchildren, that is.
But there's a rider here too: The male grandchildren are enrolled in Kerala School (a reference to Christian Missionary schools that provide quality education) in Loran while the female grandchildren had to settle with the Government middle school in Batal Kote. “Kudiyan dusre ghar jana” (girls will be married off), said the grandmother of the little children, explaining why they are not interested in educating the girls of the family. The trend is similar across the village.
A few metres away from this wooden house are a group of four to five girls hidden by a water-tank. Seeing them unburdening a huge bundle of wood each, cut and carried on their heads through the nearby forests, it is evident that they are exhausted. Striking up a conversation with girls in such remote areas always requires a certain amount of impudence, but as the conversation starts off, their brutally frank talk and disarmingly gentle smiles quivering across their shy faces leave one spellbound. A sense of satisfaction and pride is palpable when the girls share that they do attend school — two of them are Class 10 students and three are in Class 9.
These young girls work really hard, literally, for their education. After helping in household chores every morning, they attend school, and after school, they head to the forests to gather firewood, carrying the huge bundles home on their heads. Done with that back-breaking work, they begin helping with the cooking for dinner. They study once the household is asleep — all this, despite knowing only too well that they will not be given a chance to study after Class 10.
This is not unusual. The recently released Annual Status of Education Report shows that the proportion of girls (age 11 to 14) not in school in Jammu & Kashmir has dropped encouragingly from 8.3 percent in 2006 to 3.7 percent in 2011, but rose again to 5 percent in 2012. The proportion of girls in the higher age group (age 15 to 16) not attending school was a substantially higher 13.9 percent in 2012; a telling comment on parents who hold back their daughters from school, intending to marry them off instead. “It is impossible to study after Class 10. Our parents marry us off as soon as we have our exam results in hands”, said Ishrat, one of the five girls, breaking into a shy giggle.
The current statistics, however, do not take away the zeal these girls have for studying further. Even though the idea of girls studying in college sounds incredibly bizarre to them initially, they are ready to put in every possible effort to study harder and, with good grades, try and convince their parents to allow them to study further. This is a distant dream they wish to fulfil. But that will require a change in the mindset of their parents in particular and society in general.
About the author: Tazeem Akhter is currently working as Assistant Professor in Economics in School of Management and Economics at BGSB University.