14-year old Sanjana* lives with her parents and 2 younger brothers in a village in Ajmer, India, situated in close vicinity to stone mining grounds. Sanjana’s home, just like the others, is perpetually covered in a thin sheet of white sand – particulates of stone that seem to constantly be in the air, settling on every surface in the area. Sanjana’s father works as a laborer and they manage to plant just enough in a small patch of land to be able to sell it and earn some money. However, for the most part the family struggles to make ends meet.
Sanjana went to the primary school in her village until 5th Grade. Upper primary school was located in another village, 3 kilometers away. Travel to this the upper primary school meant not just a long walk but also trekking through an area of land overgrown with trees and tangled vegetation, much like a jungle. So naturally, her parents worried about their adolescent daughter’s safety and it was easier for them to have her stay back at home. There were two other girls Sanjana’s age who had dropped out after 5th grade for the same reason.
In 2016, Field Coordinator Madan, visited Sanjana’s home during Educate Girls’ door-to-door survey across the district. “When I spoke to Sanjana’s parents, I realized that she had missed out on school in 2015 even though she passed her 5th Grade exams with flying colours. Along with the Team Balika (community volunteer) of the village, I made many visits to her home, explaining the importance of education to her parents. I told them that the children would have a chance at being more than just labourers and could make a better life for themselves if they got educated. But they wouldn’t budge. We were simultaneously also speaking to the families of other two out-of-school girls girls; their parents were easier to convince. When things didn’t work out as planned with Sanjana’s parents, we changed our approach. We got the families of the other two girls to speak with Sanjana’s family. After about two and half months of persuasion Sanjana’s family agreed with several ifs and buts. While Sanjana was re-enrolled in grade 6, we knew that she continued to be at a risk of dropping out as her parents were still very skeptical making Sanjana diffident as well” , recounts Madan.
In another strategic move, Madan along with Team Balika, seeked help from the Head Master of the upper primary school. They thought if Sanjana was elected as one of the Girls’ Council members (Bal Sabha member) and given a responsibility, she would feel motivated to complete schooling. The Head Master spoke to the other girls and made way for Sanjana to be elected as one of the 13 members. She was given the responsibility of looking after education and everyday studies related needs and concerns of the girls in school. According to Madan, “This move worked for us. While Sanjana was hesitant in speaking to other girls for a large part of the year, she has eventually bloomed into a confident girl who is surer of the importance of education. She will certainly complete her 8th grade now.”
In the academic year of 2018, Sanjana was elected as the Health monitor. This new responsibility has allowed her to discover so many things. When asked about the most important lesson in healthcare she has learnt, she is quick to answer, “I was recently introduced to the concept of a ‘balanced-diet’. Until then I saw food as just food and never as nutrition. I was explained the importance of a good diet for children, especially for women. As a part of my duty, I have to check the nails of all children at regular intervals. When I checked my mother’s nails for the first time, I noticed that they were brittle perhaps because of lack of calcium and so many other nutrients. She is the last person to eat and often gets the left overs. I now pay attention to what my mother and everybody else in the house eats so that we all stay healthy.”
Sanjana’s mother laughs, “She asks me so many questions about so many things, it makes my head spin!”