While talking to the school secretary in a village in India we were interrupted by a telephone call.
“Sorry, it was the police and I have to send the school vehicle now to bring a child victim of rape here,” the secretary Kuku told us. “We have to make room for her in our dormitory and counsel her when she arrives.”
Unfortunately, this is quite a common occurrence at the voluntarily run girls’ school and, sadly for many girls, schooling is not an option.
As India prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary of independence from British rule, time is ripe to take stock of tasks outstanding. And nothing is more urgent than the welfare of its children, especially girls.
An alarming number of children are still subjected to forms of abuse, with systemic support seriously lacking.
On a recent trip to Odisha, India’s poorest state, accompanied by my wife, a former teacher herself, I visited a school for street and abused children, mostly girls.
The residential school, Ramadevi Vidya Mandir, run by PUSS (Palli Unnayan Seva Samiti), a voluntary organisation for rural welfare, is located at Naharkanta village, 30 minutes’ drive from the state capital, Bhubaneswar.
PUSS began in 1984, set up to bring hope to deprived women and children. It now houses and educates more than 225 girls up to the age of 16. In addition, 50 children attend as day scholars.
The school’s manifesto identifies the students as the children of sex workers, lepers, convicted parents, unmarried mothers, migrant workers. There are also some registered as “of no known parents”.
Some of the children have been rescued from the street. Some have been referred under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012, which requires that once the police have been alerted, immediate and adequate care and protection (such as a sheltered home) must be found within 24 hours.
Statistics on children in India are illuminating. Of the current population of 1.21 billion, 39 per cent are children. Furthermore, 84 per cent of the children are aged between 0 and 15-years-old and 48 per cent are female.
Swati Suchismita Patra, commonly known as Kuku, is the school secretary and looks after daily running of the centre. Both the staff and the children are effusive about her and affectionately call her Apa, or sister.
Heart of the school: Kuku, the administrator of Ramadevi Vidya Mandir
While teaching at Xavier Institute of Management in Bhubaneswar, two professors from the Cranfield School of Management in Bedfordshire, Malcolm Harper and Ursula Kraus-Harper, came to know of the remarkable work PUSS was doing with young girls from a sex workers’ colony and decided to set up a charity in the UK called the Friends of the Children of Orissa to raise much needed funds for the school.
Over the years, PUSS has rescued hundreds of girls from abject poverty and abusive adults and helped them to fulfil their potential. Many have gone on to further education or found jobs.
Kuku had asked an alumna, Mamata, to come and talk to us about her experience. A teacher brought her here from a remote village. The nearest school was 10 miles away across a river, which was treacherous to cross in the rainy months.
She was one of six daughters and her father eked out a living as a daily labourer. When she finished school, Kuku arranged funding for her college studies and she now has a degree in social work. She was made assistant house manager at PUSS and recently she has started a supervisory job at a private company providing security services to government departments.
“Coming here to study brought shame to my family,” she told us. “They were ostracised. Girls are not supposed to study. They are expected to stay at home, helping with domestic chores, marry early, bear children and cook for the family.
“My parents wanted to marry me off but I was determined to stand on my own two feet. My younger sister is already married.”
Mamata is unrepentant: “I am the first girl from my village to have a degree. I can ride cycles, motor bikes and drive cars,” she says with pride, “and now other girls in the village want to do what I have done.” One of her sisters has followed her to Ramadevi.
Another former student, Purnima Sahu, now teaches mathematics here. She said: “I am what I am only because of Apa and PUSS. Apa’s constant encouragement helped me through college. I hope to do a Master’s. I wanted to give something back. Without PUSS my life would have been so horribly different.”
The morning assembly starts the school day with aspirational songs and one student announcing the main local and national news of the day.
The school follows the standard curriculum. I am surprised to find the class sizes relatively small; very few classes have more than 25 students. The learners are engaged and enthusiastic. I do not notice even one incident of indiscipline.
Headteacher Basundhara Pattanaik has been at the school for 20 years. “There were two or three children in a class when I started, and now you see,” she said, “we do not have room for all the children who want to come here. It is like a big family. There is huge job satisfaction. Everyone is so committed.”
At midday, all children receive nutritious, cooked lunch of rice, dal and vegetables. Not going hungry and having somewhere safe and secure to sleep is a welcome relief to all these students.
Sona (not her real name) is 15. With her friends, she shows us their room. The bunk beds for 16 girls are tidy, their meagre belongings are packed away in trunks and the floor is clean. “We don’t have to run for shelter when rain comes,” Sona says with a smile.
On Saturdays, the school runs extra-curricular activities. First there is a mass drill in the playground. Then after a personal hygiene check, the children break into their chosen groups.
Some activities are run by volunteers, some from the UK. A young economics graduate, Chinmayee Bhuyan is teaching karate to a large group of girls. A few months earlier, Chinmayee had fought off three male miscreants who had snatched her jewellery and mobile phone. She told me: “I want the girls here to learn to defend themselves with karate.”
Education: Maths teacher Purnima with headteacher Basundhara (r)
As well as art, music and dance, sewing and handicrafts were also on offer. Without government funding, cash is always short and Kuku has to think of ways to keep the school afloat. In one room, older girls were making tote bags on order for a national conference. They have been making cushion covers and other handicraft items, which have earned cash for the school and given the girls an income. Mr Harper and his associates have sold some of these at fairs in the UK to raise funds.
Kuku appreciates the pro bono service received from some teachers from India and abroad. In fact, for those who value girls’ education, this is an ideal place to visit and help. The school could also do with financial assistance.
That PUSS serves the need of many severely disadvantaged and at risk children goes without saying. Odisha could do with many more institutions like this, and so could India. It is sad that the central budget allocation for child protection has never even reached 0.5 per cent of the money India pledges for social development. A smile on these children’s faces depends so much on the generosity of caring individuals. On the other hand, if all were left to state support, where would these girls be?
- A former secondary teacher, Prodeepta Das has written and photographed articles for development agencies. He is the author and photographer of I is for India, Prita Goes to India, Geeta’s Day, A Day I Remember and, as a photographer, collaborated with Benjamin Zephaniah on J is for Jamaica, We Are Britain and When I Grow Up.