Nuh (Haryana): Sana Ali is something of a rarity in her hometown of Nuh, in Mewat district of Haryana. Mewat has a woeful record when it comes to the education of its girls, but Ali has just passed her class X exams with 93%. At 16, Ali also speaks fluent English, but she had to go to a school in the district of Rohtak to learn it.
On 9 June, at the first Mewati women’s convention in Nuh organized by the human rights non-governmental organization Anhad, Ali made a speech before collecting an award for her achievements from a visiting Union minister of housing and urban poverty alleviation, and culture, Kumari Selja. Facing a roomful of women from the district, many of whom had already spoken their grievances into the microphone, Ali began her appeal to the Indian government. “Mewat is the most backward place in India for girls, you need to come here and do something,” she said.
Ali is aware that she is part of a minority. Many Mewati girls have a hard time making it as far as class X at all. “Actually, it’s a superstitious thing here,” says Ali. “People think there is no need to educate their girls.”
Seeking change: (From left) Apsari, her eight-year-old daughter Muskaan and her mother-in-law Muhurbi at the Mewati women’s convention in Nuh, Haryana. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
Mewat stands apart from the rest of Haryana in one measure of social development: literacy. Although its child sex ratio (at 903) is the best in the state, the district’s literacy rate is shockingly low—56.1% in 2011 according to provisional census data, 13 percentage points less than the next lowest. And, looking at the male-female split, the reason becomes apparent. At 73%, Mewat’s male literacy rate is below the national average of 82.14—but not disastrously low. For women, however, the figure is just 37.6% compared with 65.46% nationally.
And some experts say that the number could still be an exaggeration. “In rural Mewat, the female literacy level varies from 10-15%, though the official figures put it around 25%,” said a report on the region written jointly by Anhad, its rural education offshoot, Pehchan, and the Mewati Development Society.
A Muslim-dominated area, Mewat has traditionally been very conservative, said Shabnam Hashmi, an activist and trustee of Anhad. “You can see there’s a high level of discrimination due to the presence of conservative Muslim groups who see the role of women as within the four walls of the home,” she said.
But there is also a serious shortage of schooling facilities. According to the report: “Mewat has 430 primary schools for boys, 41 for girls; 282 middle schools for boys, 52 for girls; 81 high schools for boys, four for girls; 21 senior secondary schools for boys, eight for girls and only one college for boys and none for girls.” Although new educational facilities have been proposed in the area, including, in 2006, a women’s college and three polytechnics, none of the proposals has yet been realized. “The same year, regional campuses for Maharshi Dayanand University and Maulana Azad Urdu university were also proposed.” These campuses are also yet to appear.
For most Mewati women, quality of education is a secondary consideration. Apsari, whose family use only their first names, has two daughters aged eight and 10, and both attend a local madrassa, which she says is substandard. The madrassa was not Apsari’s first choice, but the government alternatives are worse, she says. The family lives in Mohammadpur, a small village right in the middle of Mewat district. Her mother-in-law, Muhurbi, and her youngest daughter, Muskaan, have shared a car ride to attend the convention in Nuh. “I send my daughter to a madrassa, but there are no masters there,” Apsari says. “I mean, there are eight masters who sit in the school, but they don’t teach, there is nothing taught there. Muskaan just knows how to count to 10. We came here today to make that complaint. There’s hardly any food in the school, and there are no books.”
Apsari also has two sons, who she sends to a private school in the nearby village of Shikrawa where they learn English. She wants the girls to go there too, next year. But it’s expensive: Rs 1,000 for each child every quarter.
In her mid-20s, Apsari is slight, with a reed-thin voice and delicate features, which Muskaan has inherited. Her own education was cut short, she says, which makes her more determined that her children should study.
“I studied until the VIII class,” she says. “Then, when I was 15, I got married and I came to this area because my husband lived here. After I got married, I didn’t go to school again. I want my daughters to be successful and so I’m very concerned about their education. I wake up at 4am every day and make them food to take to school.” Muhurbi, who never went to school of any kind, listens to her with great attention. “I want her to study again, too,” she says, pointing at Apsari. “Even if these madrassas are of no use, we’ll send her somewhere far away.”
The indifference to women’s education in Mewat spreads to other issues. The lack of education also prevents them from accessing their basic rights, according to Anhad’s report. “When it comes to basic health facilities, the entire region has only one gynaecologist due to which most of the women get deprived of medical facilities.”
Muhurbi and Apsari say that their participation in group events like the one in Nuh is frowned upon by the men in their village. “It’s not easy still, because we come for these meetings, but still the men ask me, ‘Why do you go, we don’t like you to go.’ Even if we do come, we listen to what is being said, but then we go home and forget about it.”
But Ali’s school teacher Shabnam Khan thinks there is reason to hope that the situation may be improving. One of 11 daughters who all completed school, Khan says that she is lucky because her father believed in education. “At the moment there is no attention from parents in the villages for education, but that can change,” she said. “Events like this are fantastic, they give these women a voice and empowerment. They have a chance to express themselves here, in front of us all.” Khan looked on as the women swore to raise their voices against child marriage, violence against women and the dowry system.
Hashmi thinks that the improvement is incremental at best. “Change is happening only in the urban pockets,” she said. “At Pehchan, we have set up four centres to teach girls, but even to get them out of the house is an uphill struggle.” The effect of efforts like these will probably only be felt by the next generation, said Hashmi.
And the data reinforces her opinion. In the last 10 years, the female literacy rate rose by nearly 14 percentage points, but even a similar jump in the next decade will still leave the district dragging behind.
Inevitably, Mewat’s progress will be measured in small steps. “We may not get these girls past class XII,” said Hashmi, “but they will surely want to educate their own daughters.”