For the girls of Pahadpur, Ghatak and Byonda villages in Uttar Pradesh's Bareilly district, the journey to their school is full of challenges. They walk 3 km and then cross the Dhonda river on a makeshift boat to reach their destination in Shergarh town.
But now, at least 100 girls from these villages have refused to attend school. And they have a reason. They are fed up after facing leering men from Tanda village who allegedly strip while bathing in the river, make obscene gestures and splash water on them when they cross the river on their way to school.
"I know my studies will suffer if I do not attend the classes. Despite the fact, I stopped attending schools because of these men. It is traumatic. The kind of gestures they make cannot be mouthed," said a 16-year-old girl, who wants to become a medical officer.
Another girl, a student of Class 8 who does not go to school anymore, said her elder sister too quit few years ago over the fear of the men she calls hoodlums.
A Class 12 student, who wants to be a doctor and serve her village, is reluctant to continue her studies as well because of the alleged harassment she has to face everyday.
"The comments are very obscene. They take a dip into the river and splash water on us when we sail through. I ignored this for a day. But when they repeated the same act the next day, I decided to inform my parents," she said.
Parents have tried all that they could do to stop the men from harassing their daughters. Some of them tried to reason with the group of men and taken up the matter with the authorities, but they say no action has been taken. (HT Photo)
Several other girls too told their parents about the problem they have been facing.
Girls in the state drop out of schools every year due to various reasons. While in some areas transport is an issue, in large number of cases parents, who are petty farmers and poor labourers, just cannot afford to educate the girls.
But in this case, it is not the long and arduous journey that the girls must endure to get an education.
Rajendra Singh, a resident of Pahadpur, says this is nothing new and that the harassment has been going on for three years now. The problem emerges during the rainy season every year but the issue came to limelight only after the girls refused to attend school this year.
"Every year during the rainy season, the youths from Tanda make obscene gestures and take off their clothes while bathing in the river. They do all this during noon when the girls cross the river on a boat," said Singh.
He claims that the girls approached the police for a redressal but no action was taken and the men continued with their wayward ways.
A girl, who left her village and wants to serve in the Indian Army, claims that the situation has not changed in the last two years.
"I left the village two years ago as I was fed up with the vulgar remarks by the youths," said the girl.
As they could not see any way out of the harrowing situation, the locals of Pahadpur who could afford to educate their daughters in Bareilly, moved their daughters to the town.
Parents have tried all that they could do to stop the men from harassing their daughters. Some of them tried to reason with the group of men and taken up the matter with the authorities, but they say no action has been taken. As a last resort, some of them even beat up the men earlier this month and after that day the girls from these villages have stopped going to school.
Police, who said nobody from Pahadpur had approached them, finally registered a case on Wednesday following a complaint by the family of the girls.
Station officer at Shergarh police station Dheeraj Kumar Shukla said he has booked a few of those men and will take action against them.
"A case has been registered against five youths under relevant sections of the IPC following the complaints by the girls' families. Further investigation is on. Strict action will be ensured against the accused," said Shukla.
"The case has been registered under Sections 323 (Punishment for voluntarily causing hurt), 354A (sexual harassment and punishment for sexual harassment) 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace) and 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation) of the IPC against the five," he added.
But the girls, who want to be sure that the men are punished and promptly, also called on deputy inspector general of police RKS Rathore at his office in Bareilly on Wednesday. The top cop too assured them of strict action against the accused.
"The station officer has been asked to ensure patrolling of the point from where the girls cross the river to reach their schools and return home. The police will patrol the point during morning and noon hours and ensure strict action against those involved in making obscene gestures," said Rathore.
Anil Kumar Singh, a resident of Pahadpur, said, "Girls will start attending schools after security is ensured and action is ensured against those who were involved in making vulgar gestures. We now know that the police have registered a case against five persons."
He said that Shergarh station officer Shukla did carry out an inspection at the river point and also called on the girls' families.
They will now have to wait and watch.