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The girls are giggly, jostling with excitement in the warm autumn sun. Sister Sudha Varghese stands patiently and waits for their attention. When her 125 students fall quiet in the courtyard outside their yellow dormitory, she gives them a last gentle lecture.
“Don't get sick,” she tells them in Bhojpuri. “Go and visit the festival shrines, but don't roam around at night. Enjoy your holiday. Come back in a week.”
Her tone is light, but a filament of anxiety runs underneath the words: Come back.
She looks them over one last time, then sends her charges out through the gates of Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls, to join the parents who have been waiting outside since early morning. The girls are headed on a rare visit home to the slums and villages where they grew up, to celebrate the festival of Dushera.
Poonam, 15, a star student and school leader, is one of the last to head out the gate. Her mother, Rajkumari, waits for her nervously, pulling the end of her yellow sari tight over her head. The two have not seen each other for six months, and they are shy at first; they sneak small sideways glances outside the school as they look for a rickshaw or a horse cart to take them home to their village, Jamsaut. After four years of regular meals at school, Poonam is a head taller than her mother, but still respectful.
Sister Sudha watches them head down the path, then closes the black iron gate and sits on the school steps. The girls stayed up all night, giddy about the holidays. Now, the school is startlingly quiet, and she will worry all week until they are safely back with her.
Prerna – the word means “inspiration” – is a school for Mushahar girls, “untouchables” at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, which makes them the most exploited children in the most marginalized community in the poorest state in India.
Girls such as Poonam are often married off by the age of 12 or 13. As Mushahar girls, they are widely seen as without rights, and easy targets for sexual assault. If they are raped, their own community views them as unmarriageable, so practical parents think it best to have them married before they can be attacked and tarnished.
“They go home, and the grandmother says, ‘She has become big enough – we should look for a boy,' ” Sister Sudha explains with a sigh. That means the end of a girl's studies and, more than likely, the quick erosion of everything she has gained at Prerna, in a life of relentless physical labour.
Sister Sudha, a Catholic nun turned quietly radical social activist, came to Bihar from the south of India more than 40 years ago. She went to live in Jamsaut and dedicated herself to working with the Mushahar to end their exploitation: She fought legal cases, organized demonstrations and set up a network of education centres for women in dozens of communities in the state of Bihar.
Six years ago, she left the village and began an experiment. She was troubled that Mushahar girls were unwelcome in most schools and constantly in demand for domestic and farm labour for their parents. She suspected that if she could boost them into a new world, in which they were treated with dignity and tasked only with learning, they might emerge as leaders – a vanguard for change.
She decided to bring in one or two girls from each community in a four-hour radius. When they first come to her they are shy and hunched, like the parents who waited at the gates. But six months later, they have begun to learn that they have every right to take up space – to have ideas, expectations and ambitions.
Yet Sister Sudha's anxiety as the girls leave for Dushera hints at the deep fissure that runs through her experiment: Her girls are now caught between their old lives and their new potential. They have learned to dream, but their families, their villages and India itself have little place for a Mushahar girl with dreams. Now, they stand out – and when you are Mushahar and female, that's rarely a good thing.