Comprehension exercise 22

The following story is written by Khusi Agarwal. It appeared in Livewire / Wire website. Read it and answer the questions in red.

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How an Internship Changed Everything for Me

Last October, I interned for nine days, a seemingly insignificant period of time, at the Office of Mr. Harish Chandra Meena, the Member of Parliament of Dausa. Now, stop visualizing a white-walled office and me sitting at a desk with a laptop. That was actually a very small part of what I did.

My internship involved travelling to rural Dausa and creating awareness about higher education for women in the constituency. At Dausa, only a few hours away from our national capital, the social realities are very distant.

Question .. What did the author do in October, and where?

Answer .. The author did her internship in a place called Dausa under the Member of Parliament of the area, Mr. Harish Chandra Meena.

Most girls are sent to government schools while boys are sent to private schools because parents are unwilling to invest in their daughter’s education. Incentives like free cycles and mid-day meals drive attendance. People continue to have children until they have a boy, so families with say, six daughters and one son are common.

Here, we were trying to convince parents and teachers that they should send their daughters to higher education institutes like Delhi University. Many women in here go to colleges in Dausa itself, but actual employment and financial independence for these women is a distant reality.

Question .. Why parents send their daughters to government schools, and boys to private schools? What the author told the parents of the girls?

What affected me the most, perhaps, was that most girls I interacted with were already married or engaged. They lived with their parents until the gauna ceremony which usually takes place when a girl is in her early twenties. This prevalent custom is resultant of the fact that families want to get all their daughters married at the same time, conducting only one ceremony significantly reduces the money spent on their daughters’ marriages. But this means younger daughters have to be married when their eldest sister attains marriageable age.

The biggest problem with this practice is that it creates a roadmap for women’s lives, limiting them to the domestic realm. The significance of our intervention, encouraging people to send their girls to higher education institutes, was that it aimed to change this roadmap.

Question .. How does the gauna system create hurdles in the way of education of girls?

Answer .. The Dauna system helped families with daughters of marriageable age to pool their ceremonies together. By opting for such collective ceremony, they could cut costs on feasts, decorations, bands etc. For poor parents, this was a boon, but the Gauna system has its downside too. At times, parents chose to discontinue the studies of their daughters , so that they could be married off. In certain cases, the younger girl of much lesser age was forced to marry, because her elder sister was getting married.  Such advancing of marriage spelled doom for the education and well-being of many girls whose studies and career ambitions ended abruptly

And changing the roadmap seemed close to impossible. I often felt I was addressing blank faces of children and adults who saw only the magnitude of the barriers to women’s higher education and the unlikeliness of the prospects I was describing. Teachers and parents would point out that agricultural poverty makes higher education absolutely unaffordable.

So, we armed ourselves with government schemes that provided any financial support to the girl child, compiled everything in a booklet – this was how we created ‘Disha’.

Question .. How did the parents and girls react to the author’s persuasions? What was ‘Disha’?

Answer . The author pleaded with the parents to not force their daughters prematurely into marriage. The education and skilling of the girls had to be given the same importance given to that of boys. The girls and their parents agreed, but looked vacantly at the author’s face. Their poverty and the entrenched perception that girls would eventually go off to another family made the parents very reluctant to spend money on girls’ education. They were totally unaware of the many government schemes that offered monetary and other assistance available for education of the girl child.

The author compiled the description of such schemes in a booklet named Disha, and circulated it among the people of the area. 

It opens with ‘myth-busters’, tackling the popular myths that we encountered. For instance, investing in a girl child’s education is not fruitful because she will become a part of another family.

After our interaction with female students, we often collected feedbacks. I distinctly remember one of the feedbacks, that said, we should not have asked girls to introduce themselves loudly in class. You can imagine the limited nature of class interaction or learning that takes place when most girls cannot even be heard in class.

Question .. What feedback the author received from the students about the interaction with them?

Answer .. Almost all girls mentioned that their education was a matter of low priority for their parents. That is why they were sent government schools and colleges, where the infrastructure was inadequate. Generally, the girls were asked to be introvert and maintain a low profile in the co-ed classes. They were not supposed to utter their names loudly in the class rooms. On the whole, gender inequality weighed against the girls in the society.

Freedom of speech is not simply denied to women, it slowly withers away in young girls. This is only a small instance of the role played by socialization in recreating patriarchal culture. Women don’t rebel because they are socialized otherwise. (I would like to point out here that I do not know what the women of Dausa want or if they see this as oppression. I do not think I speak for them.)

My primary learning from this internship was a change in my world view. It is not that I had not been to a village before. But visiting a village and staying with your relatives is very different from interacting with local people. I had simply never considered the lack of rural women’s access to higher education a problem. I had believed that ‘things would change with time’ and that development would ‘trickle down’ form the city to the village. I had seen the village being ‘backward’ as natural despite the fact that 70 per cent of the Indian population lives in villages.

Question .. How did the visit to Dausa and interacting with local people change the author’s view about our society and the world?

Answer .. The visit to Dausa and the interaction with the womenfolk changed the author’s perception about the hurdles in the path of proper upbringing of the girl child. She got to see the wrenching pain poverty inflicted on the people, and how it perpetuated patriarchal dominance at the cost of the women in the family. Poverty spelled ignorance, and ignorance led to poor education. It was a vicious circle that was so difficult to break.

I understood that social change requires real intervention. A majority of the people in Dausa belonged to the SC/ST community, it was there I understood the true importance of the reservation system in India and also its inadequacy. There is no means to finance the education of SC/ST people, scholarships are few, cover only partial expenses, and the money also comes in late.

Practically, I learnt how to interact with different people, be it in a rural atmosphere or an urban office. I also learnt the importance of knowing Indian languages and somewhat understood hegemony of English in India, a lesson I value as someone who has always read in English and is now studying English Literature.

Question .. Why the author felt reservation is needed for people of SC/ ST category? How English knowledge or lack of it defines education?

Answer .. The poor population of Dausa largely belonged to the SC/ ST community. They bore the brunt of the scarring effect of the resultant deprivation. Proactive intervention through reservation was, therefore, necessary for breaking the vice-like grip of backwardness of the people of lower castes. ‘Reservation in their favour was desirable,’ she concluded. Curiously for her, it became apparent that poor English skill acted as an impediment for education and career building. So, she realized the need for English education for students.

It was also an opportunity for self-discovery. We were at a press conference discussing our project and a lot of stakeholders from the education sector in Dausa had been invited. I had noticed that except the volunteers for this project, no woman was present and I pointed this out to everyone when I got the chance to speak.

After the formal conference was over and an informal conversation took over, one of my friends asked me if we should leave. Believe it or not, I said, “Women have got political space after a lot of struggle, I am not leaving.”

Question .. How did the press conference go? What the author said on being asked to leave?

Answer .. The press conference was a success as it helped the author to learn and unlearn many things. The absence of girls, the main stakeholders in the project, came as no surprise for the author. It underlined the fact that girls are still not ready to be seen in public events.. Some one told the author that she interrupted the speakers mid way. The author realized her folly. On the whole, the press meet made the author aware of the uphill task of empowering women in a poverty-ridden society.

I learnt that I am more aware of gender differences than most people. I also received a lot of helpful feedback from the people I worked with. Some of them, for instance, pointed out I interrupt people while they speak and I have since worked on that habit. I also gained a mentor figure which has been very valuable. I also received positive feedback about my sense of responsibility and their little praise went a long way in boosting my self-confidence.  [Source from Livewire / Khusi Agarwal]

Question .. How did the 9-day internship shape the author’s personality?

Answer .. The author emerged from the internship a changed person. She became sagacious, sympathetic, and compassionate. Her awareness of the debilitating effect of early marriages, decrepit educational infrastructure, and apathy of people for government schemes increased considerably. She became a concerned citizen.

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