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That a succession of Haryana governments, politicians and bureaucrats are insensitive and ill-equipped to handle the issue of female foeticide in the state is a well-established fact. Haryana has an abysmal record in female literacy and one of the worst sex ratios in the country: 877 females per 1,000 males compared with the national figure of 940 females per 1,000 males in the 2011 census. Its female literacy rate is also among the lowest in the country.

But what is it that stops girls who have survived from forging a better future for themselves? Is it family pressure, lack of infrastructure, harassment from men, or all these?

We visited parts of Haryana to meet four women and their families who have found a way out of the quagmire. When you read about the challenges these women have faced to get ahead in life, you will find common threads.

To make the road less fraught with struggle, the women need a little help.

Safe public transportation for girls; facilities for higher education; knowledge centres where girls can find out about career options; better policing and stricter rules to deal with harassment; dedicated sporting arenas where girls can be coached and then pushed ahead to take their place in national squads; and the creation of safe livelihood opportunities that can economically empower women—the solutions sound simple on paper.

The administration needs to sit up and take notice now if it wants the world to see a different Haryana in 2021.

Khatoon Bano

Student and factory worker, 18

•• Survival secret: Education and early economic independence

Road less travelled: Khatoon Bano is one of the few girls in Nai Nangla to have studied beyond class V. Photo by Priyanka Parashar

Yet it’s here that a small garment manufacturing unit where only girls are employed was set up last year by the Rasuli Kanwar Khan Trust, run by Mehmood Khan, the former global head of innovation at Unilever and a managing trustee of the trust. The white building is somewhat of an oasis and stands apart not just because it’s the cleanest place within a 5km radius, but also because it is a place where 62 girls from Nai Nangla and the villages around have found a livelihood.

Her father Kamruddin encourages her to study further. Photo by Priyanka Parashar.

“There are only three men inside the complex: a manager and two masterjis (tailors). When I went around the villages trying to convince people to send their daughters here, their major concern was men. They did not want men working alongside their daughters. Their other concern: Will the boys of this village do any badtameeze (misbehave) with their girls?" says Asha Sharma, 20, a supervisor at the unit, who comes from Uleta village in Mewat, to work at Nai Nangla. When Sharma joined this unit, her tauji (uncle) refused to speak to her for three months. “They felt that as a woman, I should not be travelling 2 hours for a job. But my father knew that this was a good place to work and that I would learn new skills here." Perhaps it was this logic that convinced Khatoon’s father Kamruddin, a school bus driver, too.

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Currently in class XII, Khatoon is among a minority in the village to have studied so far. She studies for 2 or 3 hours daily since she is appearing for her board exams this month and is allowed to take off every Monday so that her father can take her to school. “The school is far from here and my father does not want me to go there alone. That’s why he ferries me up and down every Monday because he is free that day. I study at home mostly." Khatoon says her father is the one who encourages her three siblings and her to study hard. “He says education will be helpful to make us move ahead in life. He even tells my mother not to ask any of us to work around the house if it interferes with our study schedule," she says, sitting in her two-room house, a 5-minute walk from the factory, sipping sweet tea made from fresh buffalo milk.

Khatoon knows she is different from the other girls in the village factory, something that is emphasized when “Khan chacha" (Mehmood Khan) singles her out for praise for not just working 9-5 in the factory, but also studying alongside. “I keep telling my friends here to study more with me. Some of the women who work with us did not even know how to sign their names earlier. I have taught them so that they are not angootha chaap any more."

Khatoon Bano (in blue), 18, has worked for a year and her father ensures that her entire salary is deposited in her bank account.

Mukund Upadhaya, the manager at the factory, adds: “It is tough, and none of the other girls seem to understand how to do this. It is a good skill to master and later if she wants to work in any other garment factory, she is likely to get more money."

“Sure, a lot of people in the village think I am being foolish letting my daughter study but I want my children to go beyond what I have done in life. When I see Mehmood sir, I see that if even one person in a family ends up studying, the fortune of all the members can change," says Kamruddin, vowing that he will give his younger daughter and son a better education than Khatoon.

Neha Rathi

Wrestler, 27

•• Survival secret: Focus. Everything takes a backseat in the quest for a spot in the Olympics

She has been married for a year, but has not spent more than a few days at a stretch at her marital home in Daryapur Kallan village, on the west Delhi-Haryana border. Neha Rathi, the winner of a bronze medal at the Asian Wrestling Championships 2012 in the women’s 51kg category, is a woman on a mission. She wants to qualify in the 48kg category from India for the Olympic trials to be held in Kazakhstan from 28 March.

The push ahead: Neha Rathi with her husband Neeraj at their home in Daryapur Kallan, on the west Delhi-Haryana border. Photo by Divya Babu/Mint.

Sitting in Neeraj’s palatial all-marble house in the middle of Daryapur Kallan, a ramshackle village with mostly brick houses and unpaved roads, the jeans-and-jacket-clad Neha looks anything but the traditional Haryanvi daughter-in-law. However, the 27-year-old Haryana police sub-inspector makes all the right noises around her mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law and even insists on posing with them for the first few pictures. “I showed my husband the video of my Korea bout. He is building a practice gym in the basement complete with mattresses and fitness equipment for me." Among her occasional training partners at Daryapur is Anil, a former wrestler who has seen her perform from their dangal (local wrestling tournaments) days.

Neha started wrestling in 1998, at the age of 13. “Wrestling is in my blood and my great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all pehelwans," says Neha. Her father, who retired from the Haryana police, holds a Commonwealth gold medal in wrestling, and is an Arjuna awardee, was keen to see at least one of his three children carry on the family legacy. He started training his son Joginder, but the latter had to give up wrestling because of health problems. “I remember watching the training from the sidelines and practising the steps with my older sister," says Neha.

When women’s wrestling grew in India in the late 1990s, Jagroop’s guru Chandgi Ram (of the Chandgi Ram Akhara in Old Delhi) called him a number of times to get Neha initiated in the sport. “There was a lot of pressure on my papa from guruji. When he saw that guruji had opened a special akhara (wrestling pit) for girls and was insisting on women-only bouts too at all dangals, my father felt that this sport could be good for me." Neha trained over the years alongside Sonika and Deepika Kaliraman, Chandgi Ram’s daughters, at the akhara, as well as at Madhuban, Haryana, where her father was posted at the Haryana Police Academy. “They had an indoor wrestling hall and we used to practise there." But the real turn in her training came when her father signed her up for an international wrestling training camp at Hisar after her class X exams.

In a state where the girl child is not often welcome, Jagroop and Neeraj are anomalies. For the last 14 years, Jagroop has not just worked on Neha’s training but also accompanied her for every single bout and training session around the world or in India. “No other girl from my circle in Madhuban took to sports the way I was encouraged by my father. In Madhuban, people were scared to let their girls try out wrestling. They used to say, ‘pehelwaani ladkon ka khel hai (wrestling is a man’s game)’, but these taunts did not deter my father once his mind was made up." Neeraj, a businessman, says that to him, Neha is like a child with a special ability that needs constant care and motivation. “I am connected to the game because I too come from a family of pehelwans. I want her to win."

Anil remembers laughing when the women bouts were launched in the dangals. “It used to look more like a catfight and less like a wrestling match." But today he is proud of Neha and says that Indian women wrestlers have the ability to do as well as the men’s team. “From the start, I have seen that Neha has a good command over technique."

“My greatest strength has been the encouragement that I have got from my family and now from my husband and his family too," says Neha. “When I could not participate in the Commonwealth Games because of a nose fracture, I had almost decided to give up. But Neeraj insisted that I continue and has facilitated me in every way. If I qualify from SAI for the Olympic trials, I am sure my father and he will immediately pack me off to Colorado Springs, US, for better training opportunities."

Raj Rani

Hockey player/Reality TV participant, 25

•• Survival secret: Believing that she is equal to any man

Tonight, Raj Rani will fight another battle. A smaller one. If you follow the TV show Survivor India on Star Plus, you will see this player from Haryana get into a cat fight for the first time in the 36 days she has been on the reality show as a participant.

Survivor instinct: Raj Rani at the Panjab University grounds in Chandigarh. Photo by Priyanka Parashar.

Raj Rani is from Kheri Safa, in Haryana’s Jind district, and plays state-level hockey tournaments on and off. She says her mother decided to name her Rani because she was to be the last child in the family. The last of five children, and the fourth girl in the family, Raj Rani, or Raji as she is fondly called, recalls growing up as a tomboy. “I was always out playing. Working around the house? I don’t think I ever did much of that. Once I even got thrashed for playing chor-police, was trussed up with a rope and thrown inside a room because I did not listen to a chacha (paternal uncle) who wanted me to come back home for some work. I must have been in class V, and I remember crying myself to sleep that day."

Raj Rani narrates this story quite nonchalantly, as we sit in the afternoon sun at the Panjab University sports grounds in Chandigarh. She has just returned from the local Shiva temple, where she had gone to pray on the occasion of Shivaratri. On the field, she shows us her hockey skills. Around six months ago, Raj Rani returned from Caramoan Islands, Philippines, where the first season of Survivor India was shot, and is eagerly waiting to be part of the finale episode to be aired in mid-March, for which she will travel to Mumbai.

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A reality TV addict, it was Raj Rani’s dream to participate in MTV Roadies or Zee TV’s Dance India Dance. When she heard that Survivor India was conducting auditions in Chandigarh, she signed up. This week, the girl who did not even have a passport until two days before leaving for the show’s shooting schedule, is among the show’s top eight contestants and is rumoured to be among the top three. “To lose my temper with Payal (Rohatgi, another contestant) is so unlike me. I learnt early in life that confrontation over trivial matters is just not worth it, and that fight was over a small thing," she says.

She has learnt to keep a rein on her emotions since childhood because, “in villages, girls have to keep quiet even when boys harass them because if the girls report it or fight back, it can lead to a bloodbath. And in the end, the girl suffers more because she is married off in a hurry. My own sister complained about a boy winking at her and my family was ready to kill the boy."

Raj Rani on the sets of Survivor India.

Chandigarh has been Raj Rani’s home for the last 12 years. She moved there at the age of 13 after she secured a place at trials for a scholarship at the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI’s) training centre and hostel in the city, which has now shut down.

“I was in class VII at the government school in Narwana (in Jind) when a coach came to our class and asked who wanted to play hockey. I just put up my hand. I had never played the game before." Within a year, Raj Rani was playing so well that she was among the few girls from her school who got a chance to play at the district level. “At that time, people in Haryana did not think sports would help their children get jobs or make careers, just maybe better education. That awareness has happened now."

Raj Rani believes her parents were confident she could take care of herself. “If a girl wants to change her life, she has to work hard for it. TV has made a big difference in our lives; people are seeing what all girls can do. But the girl has to inspire confidence in her parents that she will not cross the line. My parents had that confidence in me and they knew I loved sports." Raj Rani’s parents never said no to her gruelling hockey practice schedules—it meant travelling 10km, one way, in a public bus every morning and evening, wearing a track suit throughout the day instead of a salwar-kameez, or going away from home for a couple of days at a time to Yamuna Nagar or Ranchi to play in tournaments. “In a village, it is a big thing for a girl to be wearing pants and T-shirt all the time. I also had a ‘boy cut’ for my hair. When I look back I realize that my parents must have felt that if I was going to be travelling in buses alone, I should not look attractive enough for boys to tease me," she says, breaking into a wide grin.

Though Raj Rani played hockey for Chandigarh, she never got selected for a team India camp. She reasons that the coaches at SAI in Chandigarh were always at odds with the national selectors; and that she herself understood the game very late in her career. “I was just a fast runner, and could dodge and hit the ball hard. My coach wanted me to play at centre-half position, but I always thought being a right or left forward. Other girls said that newspapers only wrote about girls who scored goals. I wasted a lot of time."

Raj Rani has almost hung up her hockey boots for now. Reality TV is her new playground. She lives in a small two-room rented flat, close to the university grounds, and recently quit her job as an aerobics instructor-cum-receptionist at the Oceanic Gym, Chandigarh, where she worked for three years. “Well, since the show got aired, people who came to the gym wanted to know who will win. They got upset when I refused to tell them what will happen next. So I quit."

She is also a guardian to three nieces and two nephews (her eldest sister’s children and their cousins from Madan Heri village), who live with her. Four of the five play badminton and have been sent to live in Chandigarh so that they have access to better coaching. “People do a lot of dekha-dekhi in villages. If one girl achieves something, then the parents of other girls feel encouraged and are willing to allow their daughters to try that out... In Chandigarh, all of them are studying and are being trained to play badminton. They will be national-level players, I hope."

Sangeeta Rani

IPS, 32

•• Survival secret:Dream big; because dreams can become a reality

A solemn promise: Sangeeta Rani says that wherever she is posted, she will work to provide a safer environment for girls. Photo by Priyanka Parashar.

Sangeeta’s father did not discourage her, but didn’t believe that two decades later, his eldest child (she has two younger brothers) would be an IPS officer—and that too in her home state.

We met Sangeeta at the mini secretariat, Gurgaon, her current office, 10 days after she was attached to the deputy commissioner of police (DCP), headquarters, Gurgaon. She has completed an 11-month training programme at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy, Hyderabad, and is waiting to be “allotted an area".

Initially reluctant to talk about her journey because she felt it was too early in her career, Sangeeta gave in after persistent calls and an SMS. “When you sent the message that my story could be an inspiration for other girls, I became emotional. Once, I was on the other side; I needed guidance; I needed information to make my dream come true. Often, it seemed like there was no hope but I would gather myself and believe that I could do it."

In uniform, Sangeeta seems already at home in the durbar-like office, complete with red curtains and chairs covered in white linen. Brushing aside questions about her wedding (her chooda—the red bangles worn by a new bride in the north—peeks through the tightly buttoned shirt cuffs), she says her father retired from the Haryana police as a painter, and comes from a family of farmers. When she first spoke to him about the female protagonist in Udaan, he had said “a good police officer is akin to a god in a village". “That left a deep impression on my mind. I used to daydream about that character whenever I did household chores."

Sangeeta studied for at least 7-8 hours daily while in school and college. “I don’t think I have done anything else but study." For postgraduation (PG), she opted for a distance-learning programme since PG classes in Bhiwani were held from 5-9pm and her father worried about her attending classes at night. “This is the culture in Haryana. When a girl grows older, she finds it harder to step out of her house…even if it is just to go to college. Though parents in smaller towns may want to send girls out, they can’t. It is like inviting social stigma. The biggest fear is that the girl will have an affair, and then there will be a Khap panchayat. Parents are also scared that if a boy harasses their girl, they will find it tough to cover up the issue in society. Things are changing now, but very, very slowly."

Sangeeta got a job as an assistant professor at Swami Shraddhanand College (affiliated to Delhi University, or DU), Alipur, Delhi, in 2005 after she cleared the state-level eligibility test. Most students at the college were strapping Haryanvi men who were surprised to find a petite young woman as their lecturer. “Every time they would find out I was their teacher, they would ask, “Ya madam se (She is the madam)?"

By this time, there was family pressure on her to get married, but she resisted. “My father was not confident that his daughter could become an IPS officer. For him becoming a professor in DU was enough."

In 2005, she took the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam for the first time and could not even clear the preliminary level. “I was worried about what to do next. I had promised my father that within one year I would clear the exams." Her younger brother came to her rescue, convincing her father, who wanted her to marry, to let her try again. Her second attempt at the exam was in 2008 (illness forced her to skip it in 2006 and 2007, and she continued her job at the college until 2010). This time, she qualified for the railway services—but not the IPS. “But I did not join. For me, it was hard to let go of my childhood dream." Sangeeta believes there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who get tired of their dreams when they don’t come true and those who are driven by failure. “I am like the second type. Maro-pado, magar karna hai (do or die)— that’s my motto."

She finally made it in her third and final attempt in 2009, the year she completed her MPhil in economics. “It was an amazing feeling to know that I had achieved my dream. I have seen hard times from a close angle. My parents had faith in me and sent me out to study and work. I was always aware that if I took one wrong step, there would be a chain reaction whether I wanted it or not. Some other girl would have lost her chance to study or work because her parents would say: See that girl did this, so can you. I knew I must present a good example…because that is the only way people in my state will let their girls progress."

seema.c@livemint.com

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