In two years, Meenakshi Kadam (16) will be eligible to vote. But she doesn’t care about that. It’s too late for the government to help her.
“I wanted just one thing,” she says, her eyes welling with tears as she washes the grime of the fields off her hands and feet. “I wanted to stay in school.”
Meenakshi dropped out four years ago, after her Class 5 exam. She had fared very well, but there was no Class 6 for her to go to.
Her village school has no secondary section, and the nearest secondary school is 2 km away. There is no bus service to her remote Ghoda village in Parbhani, about 650 km east of Mumbai.
And even if there were a bus, it would not be able to ply on the dirt track that serves as a main road here. Now, Meenakshi, who once dreamed of college and a career as a school teacher, works in soybean fields all day.
She doesn’t blame her parents for pulling her out of the system.
“Girls have been kidnapped walking to the secondary school,” she says. “The winter mornings are dark… they were worried for my safety.”
Then, the rage and helplessness return.
“I hate working in the fields,” she says. “I hate to see myself reduced to a labourer.”
For those who solder on, it’s a reprieve of two years.
The secondary school ends at Class 7; then it’s a 7 km trek to the nearest senior secondary school.
Girls may be outshining boys in every school and college exam in Mumbai and most of Western Maharashtra, but in backward Marathwada many are forced to give up their dreams and drop out.
Distance isn’t the only problem.
As the girls grow older, the lack of toilets becomes an issue too.
“Many schools do not have toilets, and young girls are not comfortable relieving themselves behind a clump of bushes,” says child rights advocate Suryakant Kulkarni, who runs non-governmental organisation Socio-Economic Development Trust in Parbhani. “Other schools do not have separate toilets for girls and boys. And then, in some, the toilets have no water, or no doors.”
The result: A 15- to 30-per cent gap in male and female literacy in most districts of Marathwada.
In Parbhani, only 43.5 per cent of the women are literate, as against 66.2 per cent of the men, according to the 2001 Census.
Chakoli Kadam tries not to let the long walk or lack of toilets bother her.
The 11-year-old from Ghoda village walks to school with the boys every day.
Her dreams of being a doctor keep her going. “Education is very important for your development,” she says.
Chakoli is even part of a Bal Panchayat (Children’s Council) set up eight years ago by Kulkarni’s NGO to try and draw dropouts back to school.
The Bal Panchayat members go about in groups, shouting anti-child labour slogans outside the homes of dropouts and offering examples to parents of women leaders like Pratibha Patil and Indira Gandhi.
But even Chakoli couldn’t stop classmates Kalpana and Seeta from dropping out earlier this year.
“The walk was too long,” says Seeta. “It was just too tiring.”