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Laxmi Pal is not only creating art, she’s creating history. The 12-year-old grew up in a tiny thatched-roof hut made of dried mud in Kodanna village, believing that she didn’t belong in school. Often seen as outsiders, girls in this rural farming village of 90 families do housework and look after their younger siblings until they marry and move out at around age 14. Being the oldest of five kids, the burden fell on Laxmi’s shoulders. She’d spend her days home alone with her brothers and sisters, feeling sad and entrapped, while her mother was away cleaning houses and her father struggled to find seasonal work on farms. Laxmi broke that tradition on July 15 when she set foot in a classroom for the first time, becoming the only member in her immediate family to ever go to school.
At the CARE-supported Udaan residential school in Hardoi, located 15 miles from Kodanna, adolescent girls like Laxmi who had either never enrolled or were forced to drop out are given a second chance to learn through an accelerated bridge course. After just 11 months at the Udaan campus, Laxmi will graduate from the fifth grade. Then she’ll be mainstreamed into a government school to continue her education.
It seems that Laxmi, whose name means goddess of money, has hit the education jackpot. “If I didn’t go to Udaan I would have been cleaning houses with my mom and soon married off,” she says. “Being here has allowed me to dream about my future for the first time.” Laxmi’s dream is to become a teacher, adding that, “I want to do as good a job as my teachers at Udaan.”
A narrow escape and new beginning
Last year, Laxmi’s fragile home collapsed during a storm that flooded her village. A wall fell and buried her under the mud. She was rushed to the hospital after getting dug out with shovels. Unconscious, her family thought she was dead. Laxmi’s parents saw the incident as a bad sign and moved far away from Kodanna village in search of a new beginning. Laxmi’s uncle, Raj Rumar, lives next door to what remains of Laxmi’s home and is now her caretaker. It seems that Raj is one of a few men in the village who has had a change of heart about the role of women and girls – particularly since his own daughter, Madhu, graduated from Udaan in May 2013 and now attends middle school. “If girls are in school, they only study until they marry. No one here wants to marry an uneducated girl,” he says. “But in my family we want girls to get good jobs [instead of staying at home]. I’ll make sure Laxmi stays in school and waits to marry.”
Each year, a new class of 100 girls between ages 11 and 14 attends Udaan. The Udaan community mobilizer, Lal Mohammed, rides his motorcycle to villages up to 40 miles away, going door to door to talk to parents with daughters not in school. It’s a herculean task to persuade parents to enroll a never-enrolled adolescent girl, but Lal is convincing. He’s a firm believer of breaking down gender barriers and, in particular, changing the mindset of men who discriminate against women and girls. “When a girl is educated she then educates three families – her parents, her in-laws and eventually her own kids,” Lal says. “We must invest in girls. The nation will never develop if girls aren’t in school.”
Since CARE and our local partner, Sarvodaya Ashram, opened the Udaan school in 1999, 98 percent of the girls have passed the fifth-grade exam and 90 percent continued their schooling at a formal school, receiving grades that are, on average, much higher than regular students. Many have become teachers, which is extremely important here in India’s fifth-largest state that currently has approximately 250,000 teacher vacancies to fill.
In addition to teaching language, math and environmental science in the classroom, Udaan teachers help girls learn to question discriminatory practices and beliefs within their villages. Teachers also interweave activities such as morning assembly where girls gather before class to recite poems, sing songs and perform skits. In their free time, they play sports and learn to ride bicycles. The girls take great pride in the fact that they can now ride a bicycle – a skill that’s especially important since the distance to schools is a major hindrance to girls’ education in rural India. “You don’t have to depend on anyone when you can ride a bicycle,” says Laxmi. For her, pedal power represents independence and continued access to education after Udaan.
According to Udaan teacher Vandana Srivastava, “During her time at Udaan, we will see a remarkable transformation. Laxmi came from an uncontrolled environment, staying home alone while her parents were out working. She was hesitant to talk to anyone when she arrived. She’s since opened up and now asks a lot of questions in class, and shows her talents at morning assembly.”
One such talent Laxmi has discovered since coming to Udaan is art, and some of her drawings hang in the classroom, which also doubles as a dorm room. Laxmi was thrilled to participate in CARE’s art collection activity. Creating art makes her happy. She says it gave her a chance to explore what was going on in her mind – from family to the environment. In one painting Laxmi drew a woman planting and watering trees. “I think it’s important that people understand the kind of work women do here,” she says. “Trees give you shade and fruit and so do women.”
Vandana, who has taught at Udaan – meaning to soar – since 2001, is confident that Laxmi will continue her studies after completing the program in May 2014. “We teach the girls to continue to demand education, express their opinions and speak out against early marriage. They know that keeping silent only instigates more problems.” Laxmi agrees, “Now I feel I can tell anyone that a girl shouldn’t marry until she is at least 18.” “When a girl is educated she then educates three families – her parents, her in-laws and eventually her own kids.”