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breaking caste: part 2

A group of students from the Prerna Residential School for Girls in Patna, Bihar. The school houses, feeds and educates more than 100 students.Candace Feit/The Globe and Mail

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

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.

Four girls from Prerna have completed high school so far. They went back to their villages and married (at least one, Sister Sudha says wistfully, found an educated boy). They also got jobs as vikas mithra, liaisons between local government and the Mushahar, earning $90 a month – a considerable accomplishment.

But Sister Sudha wants much more for her girls: vocational training, perhaps for jobs as receptionists or data-entry clerks. University for the clever ones, such as Poonam. And then professional jobs, and marriage, of course, but to educated men.

None of it sounds impossible. Until you are back in Jamsaut.

An hour after leaving school, Poonam and Rajkumari (the family's only surname is a caste name they do not use) arrive at the small road that branches to Jamsaut, lined with small shops and a brightly painted Hindu temple. They hurry past these to the Mushahar tola – the small patch of land reserved for people of their caste, behind the village proper, bordered by swamp.

Their house is a half-brick, half-mud structure about the size of a master bathroom in a Canadian suburban home, with a roof of twigs laid over scrap sheeting.

Poonam rushes to hug her younger sisters and brother, then turns to the tasks that made up her days before she moved away to Prerna: She fetches water in a tin pot from the tola's hand pump, chases a family of pigs away from the entranceway of the house and lights a dried cake of buffalo dung in the hearth, filling the unventilated house with noxious smoke, to make tea with a handful of loose leaves and a pinch of black pepper.

Her mother asks her to go to the shop, passing her a crumpled 20-rupee note (about 35 cents). The fastest route would be to go behind the house and cut 15 metres across an empty green field, past other, larger houses, to the small village store. But she turns the long way down the path – and when a foreign visitor heads for the shortcut, Poonam gasps and yanks her back. It is as if there is an invisible electric barrier, and she will not step over it. She flinches if she even comes close.

When the visitor asks her why, Poonam, normally quick with observations, is stumped. Her people live here. Others live over there – and she does not know them, does not talk to them, does not meet their eyes on the road and never, ever takes the footpath past their houses.

About an hour after Poonam returns to the village, three men arrive outside her house: They are lighter-skinned, well-dressed men from the dominant caste in the village; one sports a large gold watch. Rajkumari pulls her sari over her face. Everyone looks down. One of the men stands above Poonam's aunt, who is seated in the only chair, and glares – she moves to sit in the dirt nearby, and he takes the plastic chair. The men start to fire questions at Rajkumari: Who are the foreigners, and why are they here in the tola?

The women pull their children close. Rajkumari mutters an answer and fidgets in the dirt. The visiting reporter and photographer introduce themselves; the reporter explains that they are trying to learn about the lives of the Mushahar. The men smirk.

"Their life has changed, become better. They're educated. They go out to work," says one, Rajesh Gupta, with a confidence at odds with the untruth of his statement. "Earlier, they were the ones who took anything, without retaliation. Now, they stand up for themselves." He does not make it sound like a positive innovation.

The men stay and glower a while longer, then walk off, laughing loudly. The reporter asks Rajkumari if she has ever been to any of their houses. She looks baffled: "Of course not."

She casts an uneasy glance at her eldest daughter. Tall and clear-skinned, Poonam is such a different creature from the grubby, runny-nosed, half-clad children of the tola. The upper-caste men have noticed her, and Rajkumari saw them noticing.

The invisible fences that keep Poonam in one small corner of Jamsaut were built at least 2,000 years ago, laid out in ancient Hindu texts that specify rigid social stratification into four castes, divided by occupation, with priestly Brahmins at the top and craftspeople at the bottom.

Below them is the fifth category, the "untouchable," the outcastes – or, as many call themselves, Dalits, from the Sanskrit for "broken people" – consigned to tasks deemed polluting (working with leather, sweeping streets), and excluded from almost all contact with the rest of society. In this region, the lowest rung is reserved for the Mushahar, traditionally known as rat-catchers.

All of this may sound like an ancient relic, with little relevance in the "Incredible India" of the tourism billboards, the emerging international powerhouse. The Indian constitution adopted in 1950 outlawed caste discrimination, and set aside 15 per cent of seats in government jobs and public educational institutions for Dalits, who make up a sixth of the population.

Those "reservations," as they are known – a form of affirmative action – have improved the lives of many Dalits. So have the more recent processes of economic liberalization and urbanization. In the 1980s, Dalits emerged as a powerful voting bloc in many states, and Dalit-based political parties have since had a key role in forming governing coalitions at the national and state level.

The system has helped to create Dalit judges, professors and business leaders, provoking deep bitterness in some dominant- caste Hindus, who claim that their own children can no longer get into college or the civil service. Many social programs also aim to improve life for Dalits, including the Bihar government's "Mahadalit Mission," which provides Sister Sudha funds to feed the girls of Prerna.

Yet hundreds of thousands of Indians still use the services of valmiki, or manual scavengers, who collect human waste and carry it away in baskets – a system viewed by some caste Hindus as less polluting than using a latrine. A recent national survey found that 45 per cent of villages maintain a "two-tumbler" system, in which separate dishes are kept for Dalits to use at tea stands. And even with her new education, Poonam will not take the shortcut past caste Hindus' houses, ever.

In the nation's newspapers, every single day, there is a report of an attack on Dalits who try to enter a temple, a Dalit woman who resists sexual advances by dominant-caste men or Dalits who try to use a village hand pump. Last year, police registered 38,597 cases of caste-based violence, ranging from rape to arson to assault. The real number is probably much higher – research by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights has found that only one in five such attacks is ever reported to the police.

But India's government prefers to focus on the success stories. When activists tried to have caste included in a United Nations declaration on discrimination in 2001, the government lobbied ferociously to keep it out. The government has consistently moved to block investigations or discussion by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights into caste-based discrimination.

After 21 years in Jamsaut observing all this at close range, Sister Sudha has developed a grimly pragmatic analysis. Caste gets a religious gloss, she says, but religions change: Caste is jealously protected because it is in truth an economic system, a power relationship. "The status quo has to be maintained so that the benefits that are there can continue: You get cheap labour. You get people at your beck and call for almost nothing. You have the machinery to terrorize them into obedience with almost no resistance, no opposition."

The Mushahar, who own no land and subsist on farm labour that pays at best a dollar or two a day, rarely can give their children the education or economic mobility that might bring some social change. The caste system governs life in Jamsaut today much as it did 1,000 years ago.

Poonam had not thought much about caste before she went to Prerna. Now, she considers it curiously. "Before, we weren't able to go into the temples," she notes. "Now, we can. And in the past if we touched any of their belongings, they would never use them again."

She doesn't think that happens any more – though in fact she has rarely tried to touch anything belonging to a dominant-caste person. When Sister Sudha took the children to a festival at a temple, dominant-caste families let them in, but scrubbed it down ostentatiously after they left.

Poonam has no higher-caste friends in Jamsaut. Before she left, when she attended the village school, other girls were careful to keep her from touching their papers or pens, and would not pass her a book. When she went to collect firewood, people would hiss, "Mushahar," toss rocks and chase her off.

The biggest change in Jamsaut is that Poonam now thinks that's a problem.

For a vision of what her future may look like, Poonam need only look about 100 metres from her home. At the end of the lane is a house of much the same type, which belongs to a woman named Lalmathi.

She is Sister Sudha's pride and joy: When the nun first came to live in Jamsaut almost 30 years ago, Lalmathi was a tiny girl who ran about in a pair of torn knickers, waving a stick to herd pigs. But in the evenings she began to come to Sister Sudha, who used the stick to teach her to draw letters in the dirt. She convinced Lalmathi's parents that she should go to school – the dominant-caste people in the village didn't like it, but she made it through to matriculation, coached by Sister Sudha the whole way.

Whom Lalmathi would marry became a focus of discussion for the whole community. Caste rules said she must marry a Mushahar, but by the time she graduated she was in her 20s, almost unimaginably old, and vastly different from any of the illiterate labourers she might have been expected to wed.

Sister Sudha went on a search, and in a community in central Bihar found a young Mushahar man, Biteshwar, who was also unmarried and unusually bright. Lalmathi met him and grilled him: He had a bachelor's degree, he didn't drink, he didn't gamble, he was going to try to go to law school and he wanted her to keep studying after they married. He became her husband and came to live in her community.

She got a job as a teacher in a government school – the first person in the tola to move into the professional world. They have two children; their small house has an electric connection, and the children have plastic trucks and dolls to play with.

Lalmathi is a warm woman, quick to laugh. But in her quiet moments, she articulates a deep unease. The tola is the only home she has known, but increasingly she thinks that she and her family should leave. She would like to continue her education, and she wants her children to go to a good school.

"I would move to the city – to anywhere with a proper environment to study," she says in one breath. "But if I stay, I might influence others to get educated."

That's one problem – her sense of responsibility, of how profoundly Sister Sudha changed her own life. In addition, though, it's not as easy as simply heading for the city. In Patna, the capital of Bihar, the Mushahar live in tola as well – there is no guarantee a dominant-caste landlord will rent to her family.

It might be easier in Delhi, but that would be so far away from family, and they might have to adopt a non-Dalit surname to rent a room.

It is absurd, she says, for anyone to argue that caste is not a factor in India any more. When she cycles through dominant-caste areas on her way to work, people call out and mock her for her above-herself ambitions. At work, she says, "I sit down in meetings and everyone shifts away."

She has her own defences firmly in place. "I just ignore them. I think they are mad people. … I stayed with Sudha a long time: I learned a lot about caste, and that gives me the strength to reject it."

But what about her children? What if she sends them to a city school and people find out they are Mushahar?

"People think, 'What can a Mushahar do? Catch fish or snails to eat – they can't be engineers. Why send the kids to school? A Mushahar can only be a Mushahar.'"

In a strange way, she thinks, they are safest here in the tola, where, if they keep to their own hand pump and their own pathways, the risks are minimized.

So, for now, she stays. And she watches Poonam on her visits home, and wonders how soon the choice will come for the Prerna girls – either staying near their families or moving into a world where the risks and rules are unknowable for them.

Whatever they do, whole communities are going to feel the reverberations.

Much farther away, Annie Namala is also watching Poonam and the other girls of Prerna.

Ms. Namala, a Dalit from the south of India, is a prominent activist against caste discrimination. She runs the Centre for Social Equity and Exclusion in New Delhi; her husband, Paul Divakar, heads the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. They are long-time allies of Sister Sudha and have visited the communities where she works.

Most Dalit groups have seen some social mobility, Ms. Namala says, but the Mushahar in Bihar have experienced almost no reduction in discrimination and isolation. That is the first challenge for Sister Sudha's girls: "Mushahar" will always be the defining fact of their identity.

What's more, they are girls. "Even in the Mushahar community, the girls are the bottom of the bottom," Ms. Namala says with a sigh, reflecting late one night in her Delhi office.

This parallel system of oppression tends to get even less attention in India than caste. There was much startled denial here last June, when a wide-ranging global survey by the British Thomson-Reuters Foundation rated India as the fourth-worst country in the world in which to be a woman, below even Somalia.

The survey cited high rates of sex trafficking and the widespread practices of child marriage (47 per cent of Indian women marry before they are 18, Unicef says) and forced marriage, plus the persistent preference for sons, leading to an estimated 12 million girls going "missing" because of sex-selective abortion in the past 25 years.

The success of a handful of powerful female political leaders is often cited to refute allegations of pervasive misogyny. Yet India's rates of violence against women and sexual harassment are exceedingly high, while Indian women's rates of work-force participation, social mobility and power to make their own decisions domestically and otherwise are some of the lowest, in developed or developing nations.

This is the second set of obstacles for the Prerna girls. "Imagine the pain they are going to have if they hold their heads high," Ms. Namala says. Yet despite it all, she does believe that Poonam can achieve her dream of being a teacher and even a school headmistress, that her friend Laxmi can wear the judge's robes she dreams of and that Neetu can be a district administrator.

"It's going to be tough, but the transition is possible. It's going to take hand-holding. They will need little pockets of sanctuary. They will need one professor who will protect them at college, a boss who will protect them at jobs – each one's story is going to be a struggle story."

To do that, though, they will need to go to the city, and obscure as much of their pasts as they can. And then, Ms. Namala predicts, the girls will soon draw the attention of dominant-caste men – men who would never dream of marrying them, but will use gifts and promises to try to lure them into extramarital relationships.

Meanwhile, they will be living entirely outside the world known by their parents and families, almost unimaginably alone, when all their lives they have lived, eaten and slept in close confines. They will have to find ways to keep in touch with their own people. "There have to be times when they come back together," Ms. Namala says.

From watching them, she says, she knows the girls already have resilience. But now they will need something else. "You have to build up the anger in them, righteous anger: You cannot just hope for justice – they will need that to sustain them."

She pauses and looks troubled, then seems to square her shoulders on the girls' behalf. "Most of the reforms we've had come when one person takes it on and creates a sea change. It's possible," she says. "Uncomfortable is good. It's where growth takes place."

For Poonam's mother, Rajkumari, it's all a terrible dilemma. By the time she was Poonam's age, she was married. A Mushahar mother traditionally has one primary job: to keep her daughter safe (and virginal) until the day she is delivered to her new in-laws. But Rajkumari has another: to help Poonam be all the things she dreams of.

She is immensely proud of her daughter, who is now in charge of reading any paperwork the family needs for government welfare programs. The sole decoration on their walls is a clock Poonam won in a debating competition.

And Rajkumari is frank about the fact that Poonam is the sole economic hope for their family of six: If she can finish school and get a waged job, it could radically alter their fortunes.

But Rajkumari, at 33, has perfected the Mushahar art of taking up no more space in the world than she has to. To her, Poonam seems more and more like a foreign creature.

"When we ask her about marriage, she says,'I want to study, I want to become something.'" But if Poonam does get married, she will become the property of her husband's family – they probably won't let her work, and if they do, the money won't come back here. So she wants Poonam to have a working life.

Yet she sees her tall, strong daughter as acutely vulnerable, with all the attention she attracts. So, while in one breath Rajkumari says she won't mention marriage until Poonam does, in the next she says, "I'm thinking to get her married, because that's a girl's safety. A married woman is safer – someone is guarding her."

Still, a husband for Poonam will not be the kind the village women are used to inspecting, Rajkumari says. Her sisters and neighbours, listening in, nod in agreement. "I'll look for an educated man for her. I'm not sure where, but I'll look."

Poonam listens too, and smiles shyly, head down. Of course, her parents must make this decision for her. But they don't exactly understand what it is she would like to do. They have never been anywhere like Prerna, or the private school some of the students attend during the day, where – even though the girls are the only Dalits – the teachers tell everyone that discrimination based on caste is wrong, that everyone is equal.

That makes sense to Poonam. Other people have their ideas, but caste isn't going to stop her from doing what she wants – going to university, getting a job, having an independent life. "It's just about what you have in your mind," she says quietly.

But Poonam also knows there is more to it than that. She heard Sister Sudha's warnings about not visiting the festival shrines after dark, and she knows that a few years ago a girl from the village was grabbed and raped by a group of dominant-caste men when she was on her way to work the fields. The girl was dumped by the roadside and the police did nothing. Poonam knows the story well.

When the festivals are over, the girls come trickling back to the school. Poonam arrives on Sunday night, delighted to return to her books. On Monday morning, Sister Sudha lines them up, and finds they have all come back but two: 12-year-old Sanju's family has decided that she has had enough education. And the family of Dharajia, who is 14, has found her a husband, a boy from another tola.

"They tried once before, in March, the last time she went home, " Sister Sudha says. "I talked to her parents and said she's not old enough. So I got her back. But now they were decided on getting her married."

She cannot afford the luxury of regret for more than a moment. She turns to her list of Mushahar families eager to send her their girls. Within a day or two, she has filled the lost girls' bunks and has two more slight, wide-eyed students on her classroom benches.

She can put aside the fear of losing them for six more months, until the next vacation, and return her attention to what they will do next.

"The whole country says, 'We have changed. We have improved.' But stand there," she says, gesturing in the direction of Jamsaut, "and see what changes have come. … Until it comes to Mushahar girls, you can't say the country has changed."

Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's bureau chief in South Asia.