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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 ...

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.

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