In struggle for education, girls of Odisha tribal community break barriers
The year 2017 has been a life changer for Hundadi Kadraka, a 27-year-old mother of three.
Her mundane, humdrum existence in the remote Railima village in the foothills of Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills saw a disruption this year. Her husband, a small-time subsistence farmer, persuaded her to send her eight-year-old daughter Momita to the village primary school.
It was a crucial decision for nobody in the family, leave alone a girl, had been to school before.
The Kadrakas are Dongria Kondhs, one of Odisha’s most primitive and backward tribal communities. As per 2011 census, the Scheduled Tribe community has a population of about 8000, with just a 10 percent literacy rate. The female literacy rate is a dismal three percent.
“I was not interested. I work in the fields throughout the day. If she (Momita) were to go to school, who would look after the other two children and help me at home, I thought,” Hundadi recalled.
“But my husband was insistent. He kept on referring to Dongria Kondh girls, who have passed class ten exams this year. He argued ‘If they can do it, so can our daughter, and that will give her a decent, respectable life,” she said, sitting in the courtyard outside her mud house, with a tinge of pride.
Top of their class
Hundadi’s husband Sani Kadraka was referring to the 14 girls, who created history of sorts by becoming the first from their backward community to clear class ten exams in May this year.
Though boys from the community regularly achieve that feat, it was for the first time that over a dozen girls from the community achieved the milestone. Most of the girls are the first in their families to attend school.
Their success, though a tiny dot compared to the nationwide figure (In 2017, 92.5% of female students who appeared for class 10th CBSE exams across the country, passed it) has left a mark on the community, egging many families including that of Hundadi Kadraka’s to overcome their age-old beliefs and apprehensions against sending their daughters to school. The enrolment of girls in the primary classes has gone up by as much as 15 percent, district school authorities said.
Purnima Huika, a diminutive 16-year-old, is among the top performers in this year’s class ten exams, scoring 77 percent. The community is now looking up to her.
She is currently studying science at Rayagada-based Eklavya Model Residential School, an English medium school started by the government for ST students.
“My favourite subject is Maths. I want to become a lecturer and want to teach in my village, where there is no school at present,” she says.
Huika comes from Lamba, a remote hamlet tucked away in Niyamgiri hills. Her parents sent her to the Girl’s Educational Complex at Kansur, when she was seven. Most of the 14 achievers were the alumnae of this residential school, started by the Dongria Kondh Development Authority (DKDA) in 2008.
The DKDA is a state government agency set up in 1978 to mainstream the community through development activities such as skill training and education.
The initiative is bearing fruit now and the confidence boosted by education is helping most of these girls dream big.
Pinki Kandagaria, a resident of Muniguda village is another product of the Kansur school. She scored 60 percent in class ten and is now studying information technology at the Autonomous Government College, Rayagada.
“I want to become a software engineer,” she says.
There are two DKDA-run residential schools in Rayagada district -- one in Kansur village and another at Chatikhona -- where some 400 girls are studying from classes one to ten.
In a community where girls are merely seen as helping hands at home and on the field and are married off at a young age, the achievement of these girls is no mean feat, says Guha Poonam Tapaskumar, Rayagada’s collector.
“… a silent revolution is underway in the lives of these tribal community. It is encouraging, especially as the district has a history of high infant and maternal mortality rate propelled largely by illiteracy, early marriage, poor hygiene and superstitious beliefs,” she adds.
However, notwithstanding the inspirational stories of the community’s new-found poster girls, the path to education is still strewn with challenges.
It’s not easy to convince parents to send their children to school.
“Many of them have never stepped out of their village. For them, sending their kids to a residential school is unthinkable. Language poses another big challenge. The children, when they come here know only the local dialect called Kui. We have to make them learn Odia,” said Anjali Nachika, incharge of the Kansur educational complex.
She says the bigger challenge is to curb the high drop-out rate. “Children go to visit their parents and don’t return. The drop out, in case of girls, is also high in senior classes. Last year, for instance, of the 40 girls who took admission in class ten, only nine stayed on till the end. In many cases parents force their daughter to quit once they reach puberty,” Nachika said.
Of the 14 girls who passed class ten this year, four have dropped out of higher studies. One of them is Pinki Kandagaria’s sister Taruni. She had scored 47 percent, but had to quit as her parents wanted her to help them at home.
“They wanted me to quit too. But I put my foot down. Eventually, they agreed albeit reluctantly,” Pinki says.
Dr Minati Panda, professor of Social Psychology of Education in Jawaharlal Nehru University points out there is a need to do more. “Things are looking up for the Dongria Kondh girls but the numbers are still minuscule.”
Panda, who headed the task force for Tribal Education for the 11th Five Year Plan in the Union HRD ministry, says that improved access to schools is one of the main factors contributing towards spiking the enrolment of girl students.
“Earlier, parents were hesitant to send girls because of the distance. Safety was an issue. But with more schools coming up and more children from the community going to school, the attitude is changing. The aspirations are also rising. They are beginning to see education as a cultural capital,” she says.
Subarna Jakesika from Kurli village in Bissam Cuttack block is an example. Though she scored 43 percent marks, her parents wanted her to pursue higher studies. Helped by her teachers, she managed to get admission in government ITI college, Rayagada.
Six months later, Jakesika who is studying electronics and mechanics surprised her teachers with her performance. “She has picked up really well. She confidently interacts with her teachers and is prompt in answering questions. Nobody would have believed it six months ago. She was so shy and apprehensive about everything around her,” says AK Panda, principal of the ITI.
There are five more Dongria Kondh girls studying at the ITI.
Their number may not be large, but with these girls as role models, this primitive tribal community of Odisha is witnessing a refreshing change.