The 30-odd adolescent girls in MP's Raisen displayed a typical reticence only initially. But once they started talking, issues came pouring out – sexual harassment, gender discrimination, underage marriage, faulty education policies and above all poverty.
The girls listed all these as the prime reasons for them dropping out of school after class 8 despite being eager to continue.
The girls in the age group of 15-18 years came from three remote villages in Raisen district to share their experiences at a meeting organised by Child Rights Observatory of MP (CROMP) under its 'voice of children' progamme supported by Unicef.
Over the past two years, over 80 girls from the three villages -- with a combined population of about 5000 – have left school after class 8.
The annual status of school education report 2014, released in January this year, shows that 23.5% of girls in the age group of 15-16 years in MP are not in school (never enrolled or dropped out).
"I wanted to continue, but since the two other of my classmates decided to drop out, my parents did allow me to go alone," said Kalpana Lodhi, 16, of Hapsili village, about 150km from Bhopal. She now helps her mother in domestic work.
Kalpana says that one of the major problems was that the high school is in Begumganj town 5km away and it takes at least three to four months after the start of academic session for the bicycles given to girl students by state government to arrive.
"Girls have to face lot of harassment on way to school and parents want to avoid this," she says.
Swati Sharma of Tarawali, a village in Gairatganj block says, "Due to the no-detention policy till class 8, many students fail to cope up with the class 9 syllabus and fail. They then drop out."
Arti Raikwar of Hardot feels that the most basic issue was that of economic constraints faced by the families.
"Many are unable to pay even the admission fees of Rs 600-700 and the exam fees of Rs 500-600. So if a family has many children, the girls are expected to drop out," she said.
Girls like Mamta Ahirwar, Kiran Beldar, Vinita Dhakad and others agree more or less. Vinita says that once a girl drops out, her marriage within two years was imminent. Sometimes girls studying in schools were also married off and this became the reason for their dropping out.
Chairperson of the observatory, Nirmala Buch – a former chief secretary -- heard the problems of the girls. She encouraged them to take up their issues with the local panchayats.
"We would help them in the process and if their attempts failed, the organisation would take up their issues at higher level," she told HT.
Anil Gulati, communication officer of Unicef office in MP, said that they would work with government and non-government partners to put in place a mechanism to respond to the issues raised by the girls.
The minister of state for education Deepak Joshi said that the issue of dropouts was a priority for the state government.
"We want to have high schools every 5 km but geographical conditions like forest and remote tribal areas are becoming impediments for us and about 1100-1200 schools are still pending. We are in touch with the central government for additional sanction apart from taking up construction of additional 100 high schools each session," the minister said, while talking to HT.