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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 For The Globe and Mail)
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 For The Globe and Mail)

Breaking Caste: Part 2

You can unlock the potential of India's Dalit girls, but where can they use it? Add to ...

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.

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