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Changed mindsets get Muslim girls into schools
By Ranjit Dev Raj, Inter Press Service

  It was a problem which troubled Imam Moulana Abdul Sattar no end. How to get the girls of his Meo community, in northwest India, a regular education and yet retain their distinct Muslim identity?

  Literacy rates in northwestern Rajasthan state, where the Meos live, were among the lowest in the country and estimated at 56 per cent for men. The literacy rate for women is 20 per cent and that for Meo Muslim women negligible.
  ''Traditionally, Meo girls were allowed only Din-e-Taleem (religious education) offered at the mosque and denied Duniya- ki-Taleem (general education),'' the Imam (religious leader) explained.
  Across India, girls are discriminated against when it comes to schooling thanks to patriarchal attitudes so that the average national literacy rate for women is 37 per cent against 64 per cent for men. Gender discrimination is worse in the rural areas.
  The Imam's dilemma was compounded by the fact that his villagers, in the state's Bharatpur district, firmly believed that the Hindi-medium education offered in local government schools was unsuitable for Meo girls because the language was associated with Hindus.
  Finally, Lok Jumbish (People's Movement), a leading non- government organization (NGO) specializing in education, stepped in with a simple but workable solution. It offered Urdu (associated with Islam) as a medium of education.
  Four years on, results are tangible in the 82 per cent literacy rates among boys and 57 per cent among girls in the 5 to 14 age group. Impressive, considering that when the project began, the rates were 28 per cent for boys and 11 per cent for girls.
  According to Anil Bordia, founder and, until last year, chairman of Lok Jumbish, what made the difference was the several rounds of discussions with religious leaders and parents which allowed appreciation of each others problems and concerns.
  ''Officials charged with implementing government education programmes in the district never cared enough to reach out and find solutions,'' said Bordia, who once served the central government as education secretary.
  A broad agreement arrived at, advertisements were placed for Urdu teachers. Recruitments from among the powerful moulvis (religious teachers) provided them, more importantly, a stake in the new system.
  ''It was not long before Meo children began joining the mainstream education system and, in fact, doing better than we expected,'' Sattar said. ''Many of the girls rapidly made up for lost years.''.
Dramatic impact
  At the Kaman block of Bharatpur district where the Meos form 70 per cent of the 150,000 people and where Lok Jumbish concentrates its activities, the impact has been truly dramatic.
  ''I longed to go to school but never dared ask my parents,'' said Nazneen who is in the fifth class and regarded as among the more promising of the first batch of formally educated Meo girls..
  Grinding poverty in semi-desertified Bharatpur, where villagers try to wring a living out of agriculture and cattle grazing, was among other major problems.
  Nazneen said she still has to tend to the family's cows and her parents expected her to help with household chores such as fetching water and collecting firewood.
  ''But my parents are happy that I can read and write letters, important notices and the destination boards on buses.'' she said.
  A teacher at Kaman, Naim Ahmed, has bigger ambitions for his wards and waits for the day when the first batch of Meo girls passes through Class Eight. ''No Meo girl has ever crossed that level,'' he said.
  Kaman block is today a showpiece for Lok Jumbish which began its activities in 1992 with the aim of bringing 'Education for All' to Rajasthan according to a commitment made by India at Jomtien in 1990..
  After allowing a Constitutional mandate on free and compulsory education for all under-14 children to languish for decades, it was left to the Supreme Court to declare education a fundamental right in 1992.
  Since then, there has been progress in implementing universal primary education (UPE) through the World Bank funded District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) and through non-governmental organization efforts, of which Lok Jumbish's is among the more notable.
  As former education secretary, Bordia knew that the success of the project would depend on limiting the negative influence of the bureaucracy and political elites which feared the social processes that would inevitably be unleashed in the process. .
  ''From the start, the emphasis was on people's participation in terms of involvement of beneficiaries as well as functionaries in decision-making,'' Bordia said.
  Between 1992 and 1998, under Bordia's leadership, Lok Jumbish managed to spend about US$24 million on the project, half of which was provided by the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (SIDA), and the rest shared equally between state and central governments.
An ideal mix of partners
  Lok Jumbish quickly emerged as the ideal mix between non-governmental organizations, local community, government and international donors and by 1998 had established 1,500 non-formal centres with 20,000 girls and 10,000 boys enrolled across Rajasthan.
  In Kaman block, people's participation meant not only introducing Urdu-medium education but also making the language compulsory in the syllabus for all pupils -- a move which helped remove artificial barriers between people.
  Lok Jumbish also emphasized gender equity and went beyond girls' enrolment and retention in schools. ''An attempt was made at feminizing the education system by encouraging the formation of groups for adolescent girls and women teachers,'' Bordia said.
  Women's groups of one kind or another were functional in 5,712 of the 8,675 villages in which Lok Jumbish has a presence and are working to change attitudes among rural families in favour of sending their girl children to schools.
  As a policy, Lok Jumbish preferred recruitment of women workers and two-thirds of its staff now consist of women whose presence serves as an additional incentive for the enrolment of girls..
  Bordia's master strategy lay in introducing school-mapping and micro-planning under which village groups undertook house-to-house surveys to ascertain the educational status of all children in the 5-14 age group and put them on a register.
  ''The register greatly discouraged dropping out and absenteeism, including absenteeism by teachers, and this made for accountability,'' Bordia said.
  School-mapping readily indicated the schooling status of every member in each household to villagers and planners, and helped Block Education Management Committees (BEMCs) decide who needed what and how much.
  School-mapping readily indicated the schooling status of every member in each household to villagers and planners, and helped Block Education Management Committees (BEMCs) decide who needed what and how much.
  BEMCs could approve anything from providing textbooks and organizing training for teachers to repairing school buildings, many of which had become decrepit in many parts of Rajasthan.
  At Kaman, school-mapping helped, BEMC discover that one reason why the moulvis resisted sending girls to government schools was the poor quality of education imparted there.
  ''The moulvis also complained of discrimination against Muslims by local teachers -- we effectively addressed that problem at Lok Jumbish,'' Bordia said.
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