Seven girls went missing.
Last fall, Sudha Varghese sent 100 students from Prerna II, her residential school for girls here in the northeast state of Bihar, home to celebrate the Hindu festival of Dushera. Ten days later, only 93 returned. And the veteran social activist and educator suspected that she knew why.
Nine months earlier, when the families came to drop off their daughters, some as young as 8, at the school’s grand opening, Sister Sudha had given parents a warm welcome, and a stern warning. “Your girls might look small today, but the school environment, regular meals and sports – all of these things will make them grow faster,” she told them.
“In five or six years, they will start looking big. But then don’t start thinking, ‘They have grown up and we have to get them married.’ You yourself would be taking your daughter off of the path of education, and harming yourselves.” She spoke from experience, having had the same problem when the first Prerna opened in 2006.
Sister Sudha and her remarkable schools have appeared in The Globe and Mail regularly over the past year and a half in Breaking Caste, a series highlighting the continued plight of young Dalits, the people once known as “untouchable.” The schools are for girls from the Mushahar community, the lowest of the Dalits, consigned to the bottom rung of the Hindu caste system, which remains rigidly in force in this marginalized corner of India.
A couple of semesters at Prerna can have a transformative effect – students are well fed for the first time, able to bathe each day, wear crisp new uniforms and, most important, have the scorn heaped upon their caste replaced with affection and respectful interest in their ideas. They bloom, these girls, transforming in a way that is a joy to behold.
Unless you are their parents. For them, it’s terrifying. It is against the law in India for any girl to wed before she is 18 (or boy before he is 21), but it is the tradition, and still the practice, of the Mushahar to marry off their daughters at 12 or 13. The practice is not confined to the Mushahar: The figure for Bihar is 68 per cent, by far the nation’s highest. But almost half of all Indian girls, 43 per cent, wed underage.
Like the dowry and the caste system, child marriage is a critical social issue for which India, in so many ways a beacon to the developing world, has fine laws, but lax enforcement. And while there is growing candour about the treatment of women – seen in the recent furor over a gang rape in Delhi – the subject of immature brides is trapped in the past.
Sister Sudha is a Roman Catholic nun from Kerala in India’s far south; she came to Bihar to work with the poor 46 years ago. Within months, she had fled a hidebound convent to live in a Dalit village, and has dedicated her life to empowering the Mushahar.
The girls, in particular, have become her focus: She sees them, with the least power but huge potential, as the key to change in communities where no adult has ever spent more than a year or two in school, and women are frequent victims of harassment and sexual assault.
India’s sexual violence epidemic captured world attention recently when a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was brutally gang-raped on a Delhi bus and died of her injuries – but that grim story came as little shock here in Bihar, just over the border from the village the victim’s low-caste family had left seeking a better life in the city.
The first of their kind, the Prerna schools (the name means “inspiration” in Hindi) have proved revolutionary, not just for the girls, whose lives are turn from malnourished illiterate domestic drudgery into a glittering string of achievements, but also for their wider community, which is seeing Dalit girls in a whole new way.
Prerna students have won international karate championships and district-wide art contests, and been singled out by the Chief Minister of Bihar for their accomplishments. But the notion that girls must marry before they are 14 – for their own safety, for their family’s honour and financial reprieve – has proved tenacious. Sister Sudha has seen students leave and go, in a matter of weeks, from being voracious readers, staying up late to study under a weak bulb, to child brides tending fires and pigs, soon damaged by pregnancies their bodies are too immature to carry safely.