Munni, a cheerful and a talkative girl at the Jhakela middle school, used to graze cattle in the rocky terrains of Madhya Pradesh's most backward Jhabua district until six months ago. Now she dreams of becoming a doctor.
Ten-year-old Munni's life changed ever since she started attending the residential bridge course at the school in Rama development block promoted by the state government with the help of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The bridge course was started two years ago in several places across Madhya Pradesh to get out-of-school girl students into the mainstream formal education system.
The course aims to get more girls to school and equip them with basic educational tools. It was designed for using innovative educational resources and practices in enhancing children's learning.
"Families in the village are reluctant to educate girls who are often married off at an average age of 13. They become victims of deeply rooted traditions and gender inequalities," Walsing, president of the Rama development block, told IANS.
"The gender bias is so deeply rooted that it is not recognised as discrimination but termed 'tradition'. So each generation learns to discriminate without realising it," said Walsing, who ran from pillar to post convincing parents to send their children to school.
Said Jyoti Chauhan, a teacher in the Jhakela school: "Many parents here say that educating boys is better because they will earn for the family but a girl will end up doing the same thing - housework, marriage and nurturing children."
She added: "Early marriage and pregnancy often put an early end to a girl's education".
A tense Munni said: "This frightens me. I want to become a doctor. But dreams remain dreams. God knows what will happen next. This school course is only for a limited time. I am afraid, my father may marry me off soon after."
The young girl said the course had changed the way she perceived life and the role of women in society. "When I was smaller, my mother told me that I should not dream the impossible - like going to school. But today the gods have surprised me with the chance to hold a book, to read and write. Now I dare to dream the impossible," she exclaimed.
"I want to show my mother and others that they were wrong in saying that being a girl I should not study. I hope someone hears my cry and comes forward before my education is stopped."
Said Kunta Soni, the district female coordinator (education): "Problems of girls being left to look after the household chores persist, but more and more girls have started attending school now than a decade ago. This has been made possible largely due to the efforts of the state and the UNICEF.
"The state government and UNICEF have collaborated to create a virtual revolution in education," she said.