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A student studies on the hallway floor at the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls in Jamsaut, in India's eastern Bihar state. (Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)
A student studies on the hallway floor at the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls in Jamsaut, in India's eastern Bihar state. (Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)

Breaking Caste: Part 1

Remarkable school gives girls from the bottom of India's caste system new hope Add to ...

Read more about the extraordinary schools that give India's Dalit girls a chance at a better life by clicking here.

The sky is still dark, the air still cool, when Poonam is roused by the shrill blast of the housemother's whistle. Tousle-haired, her face crinkled with sleep, she bundles her bedroll and shuffles with her friends out of their crowded dorm and to the lawn.

Still yawning, she takes her place in the front row of three ragged lines and begins to swing her arms and legs. This half-hour of exercise wakes her, and she is giggling by the time the girls head back inside. She fills a small plastic tub from a hand pump and gives herself a quick bucket bath. Then, back at her bunk, she lifts her uniform from its small steel case, smooths its pleats and puts it on: knee socks, grey kilt, white blouse, heavy shoes. Biting her lower lip, she wedges her long hair back in two barrettes.

She lines up for a plate of bread and daal and a steel cup of watery yogurt, and eats squatted on the veranda out front, her Hindi notebook propped in front of her for some last review.

By 7 a.m., she is on her way – her pink glasses perched on her button nose and her backpack pulling down her shoulders – out the gate of the girls school and up the road. Of the 125 girls here, Poonam has shown herself one of the brightest, and rupees have been saved to send her and a few others to private school. The rest of the girls watch with silent envy as she sets off; the responsibility is immense.

But Poonam, at 15, brims with confidence: She will get her high-school diploma, then go to university and get a bachelor's degree. And then she will be a teacher, she says – the best kind, who always takes the time to make sure students understand. In Poonam's whole community, there are only 10 people who can read, but she is undeterred.

“If I try, I can be and I can do anything,” she says one evening. She sits with a few other girls in the circle of a lone light bulb, eking out a last hour of study. Her voice is filled with conviction. “If I don't try, I won't be able. But trying will take me far.”

It is a beautiful idea – beautiful, and completely unfounded.

There's a popular image of India today, of technology start-ups, call centres, film sets, even a space program – the emerging superpower in the business pages, the one the government splashes on its “Incredible !ndia” billboards.

But Poonam lives in another India, one she shares with three-quarters of her 1.2 billion fellow citizens.

In the official India, “untouchability” – the social exclusion of Dalits, the people at the bottom of the Hindu caste system – is an antiquated, illegal practice, countered with a plethora of affirmative-action schemes.

But in Poonam's India, caste is still rigidly enforced, in her village and most other rural areas. It's the India where a million girls have gone “missing” in the past six years because of sex-selective abortion, and where female work-force-participation rates are among the lowest in the world.

Poonam is a Dalit and a girl in India's poorest state. The odds stacked against her are immense.

It is an article of faith here that urbanization and economic growth are bringing greater equality. For some people, in the biggest cities, this is indisputably true. But Poonam is the acid test: In her India, in her lifetime, will it ever be enough just to work hard and have a dream?

This story starts long before Poonam came to school. It starts in 1964, in an airy classroom in a whitewashed Catholic school in the lush heart of Kerala, the southernmost state of India.

Another teenage schoolgirl, this one lanky but strong, is hunched at her desk: The teacher has left the room, but she is oblivious to the hubbub of chattering girls that has erupted around her. She has in her hands a magazine – a precious thing, something the girls only see a few times in a year. This one is from the Mission League, and it tells of the work being done in other parts of India by nuns and priests who work among the poor.

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