Ajmer, in the western state of Rajasthan, India, is home to one of the few known temples to Brahma, the Hindu god of creation; and to a famous 700 year old shrine built to a Sufi saint. Tens of thousands of pilgrims visit the area every day. Drive a little over 20 miles west of these tourist hotspots, past barren land and the occasional cotton field, and you reach the dry, dusty village of Leedi. Most of its nearly 4,000-strong population belong to tribal or socially backward communities, and a significant percentage of the adolescents here have never made it to school or have dropped out after primary school.
We drive down a narrow village road that ends abruptly at a rocky, shrub-covered hill. We’re barely out of the car before we’re surrounded by young children. The older ones follow more sedately, and a few elders from the village bring up the rear. Our partners from Doosra Dashak – the not-for-profit that works on improving access to education for adolescents – introduce us to the elders, one of whom is Ramlal.
We learn from Ramlal that there are about 75 adolescents in Leedi between the ages of 11 and 20 who are currently out of school. The reasons for dropping out are many, he says. And this affects girls more than boys. Some of them have to stay back to help with farming or goat rearing. For some, school is too far away. Some girls drop out because they get married at as early an age as 10. We meet Sita, who had to leave school after grade 5 because her parents needed her to help with chores around the house. Standing shyly behind her is Devi, 12 years old and already married. We ask her if she’d like to go to school, and the smile that lights up her face is response enough.
Fortunately, Ramlal and the other villagers gathered here know how important it is for their children to be educated. They believe – thanks to Doosra Dashak’s efforts and the examples of the lucky few in the village whose lives have been transformed by education – that sending their children to school is the only way forward. And they’d like to start by setting up a community center along the lines of the ‘Ikhvelo’ model that Doosra Dashak has championed successfully in other villages of Rajasthan.
The community center is a hub of activity for children in a village. Equipped with computers, teachers and a library, it is designed to help children prepare for school by honing their language skills, providing help with math and science lessons, and teaching them how to use computers. So children come here to learn. But they are also encouraged to play games, read stories to each other and enjoy themselves. Little wonder then that children flock to these community centers!
The Leedi community center has an additional goal – to prepare those adolescents who’ve dropped out of school or never attended school to enroll in the open schooling system. Through guidance and coaching provided at the center, adolescents will be able to take examinations at the Grade 5, 10 and 12 levels, and re-enter the regular school system. Of the 75 or so adolescents that are currently out of school, the Leedi community center aims to work with at least 50, helping them with lessons, and preparing them for examinations so they can go back to school.
Since our visit to Leedi, a community center has been set up by Doosra Dashak, and acts as a second home to the 42 children currently enrolled there. The walls of the center are covered with brightly colored posters and artwork put up by the children. And numbers are growing steadily. Bloom & Give has provided financial support to buy computers, books and stationery; and to pay for a teacher and an assistant to run the center for a year.
At the time of writing this, the center has been up and running for four months. Children are being coached in Math, Hindi and English. They have been taught basic computer skills and are eager to start more advanced lessons. They have been borrowing books from the library and have participated in group story telling sessions. 15 out-of-school adolescents have enrolled for Grade 10 and 12 exams through the open schooling system. To our delight, Sita is on that list. We hear that Devi has been attending classes and is hopeful of appearing for the Grade V exam soon. The transformative power of the community center is already evident.
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