Sabila, the daughter of the Imam in Kherla, wants to be a lawyer. Her parents want her to stop schooling after Class X, but she’s determined to convince them otherwise.
In the conservative Meo-Muslim, poverty-stricken area of Mewat, education is a privilege, not a priority. Between boys and girls, parents would rather fork out the school fees for the boys, keeping their adolescent girls at home instead to do the chores, before marrying her off when she is around 17 years old.
In primary school, the number of girls and boys are somewhat equal. But in middle school, the number of girls relative to boys plummets. In the typical scenario, girls make up just one third or one quarter of a classroom. In one school, we saw that there were so few girls in Class VII and VIII and they had to be merged – resulting in questionable multi-grade teaching.
It’s tragic that female education is so unpopular in Mewat, because educating girls is one of the most crucial factors in eradicating poverty. Educate a girl and she is likely to earn a better income, have lesser children, and reinvest 90% of her money back into her family. This ends the vicious cycle of poverty.
But hope is not lost in Kherla.
The Imam’s daughter
Sabila, a Class VII student in Kherla Government Middle School, knows that she’s lucky to be in school. “Many girls don’t come to school because they have family problems,” she explains.
There are seven children in her family, including her. Her father’s salary is modest, so she started giving Urdu and Arabic lessons to supplement the family income since she was 11. Her students are married women who are about 17-18 years old, and she takes 15 of them at a time.
A petite and shy girl, Sabila knows the value of education and how it’s important for her to remain in school if she wants to earn a better living for herself and her family. Just a few months ago, she convinced her neighbours to enrol their youngest daughter into Class II. “They have four daughters,” she told us, “and all are illiterate. So I told them that they must send at least one child to school.” Convincing them was difficult, but she persisted anyway.
She takes after her father, who encourages schooling among the community. For instance, he had requested that madrasahs close earlier at 7AM instead of 10.30AM, so that students can make it for school.
How different is her life from a boy her age?
“Sometimes I think, if I were a boy, I would not be asked to do housework and can then concentrate more on my studies.”
Kherla: Jewel in Mewat
The first time we stepped into Kherla, we noticed a clear difference in the learning environment: boys and girls are divided into separate sections. Immediately, what took us by surprise is not that boys and girls were separated, but that for once, there were enough girls to make a separate section on their own, for each level.
And not only are there more girls here than usual, but these girls are more confident in approaching us. Whereas those from the other schools generally tended to shy away, the girls here would cheekily call out to us “Hello! How are you?” upon seeing that they had foreign visitors. It also strikes us how we rarely hear children in Mewat talking to us in English.
We think the secret behind Kherla’s higher girl child enrolment is the fact that there are three female teachers. While this might sound unimpressive, putting it in the context of Mewat, where some schools don’t even have a single female teacher, and you might see why just three women have the power to change the dynamics of the student population so dramatically.
Sarita Ma’am, an inspiration
We speak to Sarita Ma’am, a Science teacher who has been teaching in Kherla since last year. The school has no laboratory yet, and the scientific vocabulary in Hindi is difficult for her students to grasp – but she gives her best anyway.
She credits the higher girl child enrolment not to herself and her colleagues, but the fact that Kherla is near Nuh, where the district office is located. In this area, there are relatively better off people and hence there is more awareness on the need to send girls to school. She also thinks that there is an increasing trend for girls to continue education.
As a female teacher, she says that she gives moral support to the girls, and even their parents. She willingly listens and gives advice whenever it’s needed. As an educated woman holding a B.Sc. and a B.Ed, she is an instant role model to the girls, showing them that they too have the option of being a graduate if they are determined enough
Even though she knows that most girls stop schooling after their board exams in Class VIII, she constantly encourages her students to continue beyond middle school, so that they can have better incomes later. She promotes economic independence, because it will lead to better nutrition and subsequently better health, which will benefit the girls and their families.
To her girls who are mistaken in thinking that their education is unnecessary because they will have their husbands’ incomes to depend on in the future, she explains, “Marriage is an important part of our lives, but after marriage, the hardships don’t end. If you want money, you may ask your husband, but he will say ‘Go ask your brother or your father.’”
She speaks of the traditional mindsets in the community with regret. “Parents should not think that the birth of a girl is a burden,” she says. “They should think that she is also a human being. Women shouldn’t be seen as merely a source of money, and to be used as a device to produce children. Sometimes, mothers themselves feel sad when they give birth to a daughter, because they know that the baby will go through the same plight that they did.”
“We need to change their inner thinking,” she adds.
What we can do
For all the things that Kherla Government Middle School has achieved in female education, we can invest in them to give encouragement, so that they will achieve more. Although their student population is bigger, they are not spared from the usual issues that schools in Mewat face.
For example, during the monsoon season, the flooding in the school forces them to shift to another compound. Although the students’ attendance is not affected, this creates a lot of problems, and classes are often interrupted. Sarita Ma’am thinks that having underground water tanks might alleviate the problem.
The school also has no drinking water facility, which Sabila wishes they did.
By spending particular attention investing in Kherla because of what they have achieved, this will send the message to other schools and communities that effectively encouraging more girls to attend school is the way to go. Subsequently, having more educated girls will help to ease poverty in their villages – a desirable situation for all the people in Mewat.
Alternatively, there are also many other innovative interventions we can make, to encourage girls to complete middle school, and beyond. With more hands to help empower the girls in Mewat through inclusive education, we can positively change their lives for the better.
To send some encouragement to the girls and teachers in Kherla, email
firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how you can get involved in the making of a Model School.
Mewat Mondays is brought to you by our interns, Aisyah and Rafidah, who by now are convinced that Kherla Government Middle School is their favourite. As part of their field research, they have been spending time in some of the 19 villages, and will gladly share pictures and anecdotes from these experiences. Reach them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org respectively.