| Shabana Azmi with Lalita at the Unicef function in New Delhi on Thursday. (PTI)
New Delhi, Dec. 11: A confident face smiles out of the glossy cover of Unicef’s latest report on the state of the world’s children. Meet Lalita, the 18-year-old “karate girl” from a remote corner of Bihar.
She is in the limelight for refusing to become one more head in the army of “missing girls” — those who never get to go to school in the 6-14 age group — in India. “My parents wanted me to be like others and stay at home. But I fought my way to school,” said Lalita at a function to release the 2004 Unicef report.
“Earlier I was doing nothing but cutting grass, fetching firewood, cleaning and cooking,” said the girl from Sitamarhi. Her life in this remote corner of Bihar changed when she came in contact with the activists of the Mahila Samakhya Centre, which runs informal schools educating girls between nine and 15.
Flanked by actress and former Rajya Sabha MP Shabana Azmi and Unicef representative Maria Calivis, Lalita spoke with remarkable ease before the media. “I used to go to school without telling my parents. When they found out, they objected,” she added, betraying no trace of nervousness.
When her brother hit her for going to school, her parents told Lalita some rules would never change. It is always the prerogative of men to beat women.
This time the gutsy girl broke another social barrier — she started taking karate lessons at the centre. “I am not going to be beaten any more. I will hit back,” she said, explaining why she began going for the martial art classes.
Today, she has passed out of Class V and aspires to become a teacher to show others the way.
Here, the ray of hope is smothered in an otherwise gloomy scenario. For every Lalita, there are many more who haven’t had a chance to step into school.
The Indian government is doing a lot but not enough to put back the missing girls in schools, said the Unicef report.
“No doubt the Indian government has taken excellent measures in education, but there is still that extra mile it has to cover,” said Calivis. There are 121 million out-of-school children — a majority of them girls — throughout the world.
Repeating the concerns of the last Unesco report, Unicef says: “Girls’ education has never been a priority for development investments. Countries that do not achieve gender parity in education increase the cost of development efforts and pay for the failure with slower growth and reduced income.”
Azmi criticised the government for pushing through an alternative system of education whose quality leaves much to be desired.
“These alternative schools completely violate all notions of uniform schooling and quality education,” she said.
Many NGOs working in the education sector have echoed her sentiments and blamed the government for transferring its responsibility of educating every child to the informal sector.
“The failure on the part of governments to reduce the overall number of children who do not attend school is worrying enough, especially bearing in mind the hazards from exploitative child labour to HIV-AIDS,” says the report.
While enrolment rates in Latin America and the Caribbean, at 94 and 97 per cent, respectively, are close to those in the industrialised countries, South Asia lags behind at 74 per cent. Sub-Saharan Africa languishes at a mere 59 per cent.