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Shabana’s Future Mother-In-Law Visits Every Month To Measure Her Height

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This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

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Jaisalmer is well known for child marriages and, in turn, early dropouts and other social issues like early pregnancies and pre-post natal health issues. Having one of the lowest literacy rate in the country, only 52.1% of women are formally educated in Rajasthan among all other states and UTs, according to the Census 2011. Rajasthan is famous for still having the highest number of child marriages, 8.2% in boys and 8.6% in girls, in the 10-18 year age group.

As a Gandhi Fellow, I was allotted the Government Upper Primary School in Pokaran, Jaisalmer. It is 15 kms from the main town, but the distance was not the main challenge here. Shabana Bano (name changed), a class 5 student at this very school, loves singing and drawing. She is the class representative, a class topper, and a sincere and dedicated student.

Shabana’s mother is the daughter of a poor farmer who works day and night to grow millet on a small rented land that feeds the family and livestock. A small portion is used to barter with other farmers and landlords.

According to her family, she was engaged at the age of 3 years, while her younger sister was engaged as an infant. Her father justified ensuring their future by placing girls in their respective families (in-laws). However, child marriage leads to early pregnancy, which is likely to cause poor health status of teenage mothers.

According to her friends, she has not even seen her to-be husband’s photograph. They have heard by eavesdropping that the boy studies at Jaisalmer and is much older than her. He belongs to a different far-off village and may have completed his schooling.

Her mother-in-law visits Shabana every month and is strict with her. She measures her height, hair and checks her grades every month. Shabana’s mother-in-law doesn’t want her to do well in class and expresses displeasure every time she shows her grades. According to her in-laws, if the girl loses her voluminous hair, her eyesight, or if she gets taller or stays much shorter than her husband, the marriage might be in question.

Shabana is a quiet child, with her hijab always intact over her head, always busy with her books, colouring, supporting a friend in their homework or assisting her teachers. As soon as we reached home, she went straight to the kitchen, boiled milk and brought some snacks for me. Jaisalmer is well known for their hospitality “padharo mhare desh“, but watching an 11-year-old do all the work was something I was not looking for.

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Shabana said that she assists her mother in the kitchen before coming to school at around 7 am; she helps her mother clean goats, milking them, and bathing her two younger siblings. She, and other students, are enrolled in a madrasa for religious education and has to study there for two hours before and after school hours daily. Earlier, students used to study only in the madrasas. Then, parents were encouraged to send their children to schools. Now, they can study at the madrasas for a short while daily. This does create pressure on students, but students are able to get elementary education till class 8.

The consequences of getting engaged early are many. After reaching the age of puberty, they leave education and start assisting more at home. During this time, they are married off, leading to early pregnancies. This also means health-related issues that come with early pregnancy. More than 40% of the girls are undernourished below the age of 18 years, and among those, about 21.6% have already given birth to one or two children.

The high rate of school dropouts in desert districts is 97,000 in Barmer, 60,000 in Bikaner and 28,000 in Jaisalmer. It reflects a stark reality. Early marriage and pregnancies, poor infrastructure facilities, no drinking water, schools at long distances and no toilets are causing this. Of the total number of dropouts, girls are in the majority.

According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, there are 941 women per 1000 men, but only 33.1% of women between the ages of 15-49 are literate compared to 68.3% literate men in the district. Jaisalmer is a golden city of our country which holds its cultural heritage intact. However, it needs to reflect on where it’s going wrong with girls’ education.

The author is a Kaksha Correspondent as a part of writers’ training program under Kaksha Crisis.

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