For Kanchan Kumari, it has been a struggle to get enrolled in a school and get a good education. Belonging to the Musahar community in eastern Indian state of Bihar, Kumari, 15, wants to join the civil services but believes that there are not enough higher education opportunities in her area and also not much motivation from her family to continue her studies. The Musahars are the most marginalized community in the state and were formerly known as rat catchers. Community members have long abandoned this activity and are now mainly daily wage workers. Nonetheless, they are relegated to the very bottom of the Hindu-based caste system that has dominated Indian society. "My parents ask me to get married but I want to study. After completing my 10th grade, I will have to move to a city for higher studies and that seems difficult," Kumari, who lives in Purnia district, told ucanews.com. She was in New Delhi, along with 16 other girls of the community, to perform a street play highlighting the importance of education and the problem of early marriage, especially among the socially and economically disadvantaged communities of the state.
Indian girls from the Musahar community perform a street play in New Delhi highlighting the need to stay in school. (Photo by Ritu Sharma)
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Their social backwardness and poor education have been the concern of aid agencies such as Caritas India, the service arm of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. The poor education system prompted Caritas to join with another agency, the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, to conduct a survey on how the national law guaranteeing education was being implemented. The Right to Education Act enacted in 2010 guarantees free and compulsory education of all children up to 14 years. The law also lays down norms and standards relating to pupil-teacher ratio, buildings and infrastructure, and prohibits physical punishment and mental harassment. The survey results released March 29 found serious violations in implementing the law in socially and economically poor areas. The survey was conducted in 32 schools in the state's remote areas, covering three rural districts of Munger, Purnia and Madhubani and one urban district of Patna, said Girish Peter, Caritas India's north zone manager. "The decision to include the most backward areas in the survey was because there is only 7 percent literacy rate among the Musahars as compared to the national literacy rate of 64 percent, Peter told ucanews.com. Lenin Raghuvanshi, founder of the human rights committee, said that there have been serious violations of the education law in government schools in Bihar, especially in remote areas. There is lack of proper infrastructure, especially in Musahar areas, and a lack of qualified, trained teachers, he told ucanews.com. "Nothing specified in the (law) for bridging the gap between the backward communities and school is being implemented in these schools, Raghuvanshi said. According to the report, 53 percent of the 32 schools surveyed do not have a principal, 65 percent schools do not have a library and 81 percent do not have a computer facility. The report revealed that only 8 percent of the schools were in dalit communities while there are no schools in tribal localities. Peter said that Caritas India has been working for the last three years among the Musahars to motivate community members to educate their children but expressed concern that the sorry state of schools in the area serves as a big discouragement. "Even if we get to enroll a good number of children in schools, it is difficult to sustain them because of the poor infrastructure of schools, he said, adding that Caritas has been working with the school management to curb the illiteracy rate among the community. Helping hand
Nisha Tirkey, who works with Musahars in Purnia, says Caritas field workers identify school dropouts and make sure they start going to school again. "Their parents are all laborers. At least their generation should get some education and become aware," Tirkey said. Mamta Kumari, an eighth-grade student from Purnia, told ucanews.com that she faced stiff opposition from her family for going to school. "I like studying but my mother was adamant on marrying me. After counseling from the Caritas team and seeing my good marks, she started supporting me," she said.