(Some of the girls in this story have been given fictional names to protect their anonymity)
‘Welcome to our camp! We’re going to sing and dance and tell you our stories today and we hope you have a wonderful time. My name is Kamran and I can’t wait to guide you through our program!’ Kamran, resplendent in her long skirt and sequined blouse, is beaming, her excitement palpable. Some 50-odd girls sit around her, dressed in their finest clothes, colorful and sparkly, ranging in ages from 14 to 19. We’re at a camp for adolescent girls, run by our partner Doosra Dashak in a small village named Mangaliyawas, in the heart of the state of Rajasthan in western India. The camp has been running for about 8 weeks now and the girls have been living here, away from their homes and their families. Today the girls’ families have been invited for a sort of social, and to spend the day at the camp. By a fortuitous coincidence, we’ve arrived at the camp just as the show the girls have put up to entertain their families is about to begin.
First up is a song that the group sings in unison. It’s a rousing call to one another to free themselves from ignorance and oppression. It has the feel of an anthem and the girls sing it like they mean it. The song ends, and Kamran announces that Pali, the oldest participant at the camp will deliver a welcome address.
‘Namaste’, Pali greets us. She’s a frail wisp of a girl, but speaks confidently, in a voice that carries. ‘I’m Pali, and I’m honored to welcome all of you to this camp. My family isn’t here today, but we’re all sisters here, and that makes you my family too.’ ‘I’m a veteran of camp life. I was here 10 years ago, as a child of 9 who had never been to school. I learnt to read and write and do sums, and acquired basic life skills here. I was guided through the application process for the open schooling program so I was able to pass examinations for the 5th grade when I left here. But I’m from the Gurjar community, and we have to tend to our goats and herd our cattle to survive. And like many of our girls my parents got me married when I was 10. With that, my dream of studying all the way through college ended.’
She pauses for a beat, fighting the tremble in her voice, then resumes. ‘I stayed back, helping look after my family’s herd of cows and goats, while my parents waited for me to turn 16 and move to my husband’s home. But before that could happen, my husband died in an accident. So there I was, widowed at 14, with no real home, and entirely dependent on my parents and my in laws to support me. Luckily for me, the lessons I’d learnt at camp saved me. I went through my husband’s papers and realized that he had insured his life and had named me as the beneficiary. I raised a claim on the insurance policy and even though it took a few years and a lot of persistence I got the money.’
Pali breaks into a smile. It transforms her from a solemn young woman to an impish child. ‘I gave some of the money to my husband’s family but I guard the rest of it with my life. I’ve put it safely in a bank and I’m going to use it to study, find employment and be independent. I want to work hard at this camp and make up for all the years I’ve missed. When I’m done here, I’ll enroll for 10th grade examinations. Then 12th. Then college. I’d like to thank Doosra Dashak for giving me a second chance at education, and at a better life. And I implore all of you to let your daughters continue with school. Let them learn to stand on their own feet, before you get them married and deprive them of a future. Thank you for letting me share my story with you.’
A few seconds of silence and then everyone in the audience applauds. There are approving shouts from parents of the other girls at the camp. Bubbly Kamran returns, restores the festive atmosphere of the camp. She announces that we are now to be entertained by a series of songs and dances performed by the participants. Interspersed with the songs and the dances are stories told by participants…
The stories these girls tell us are heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measure. Their capacity to live in the moment, to sing and dance and laugh, reassures us that they are young and resilient. Doosra Dashak, by seeking out these girls and offering them a chance to go back to school, has given them hope and a second lease of life.
The camp is housed in a single-storeyed building that overlooks a large, sunlit courtyard. The building serves as home for the 54 girls that are participating in this camp for its 4-month duration. The camp, simply put, is a residential crash course for the girls to learn language, math and life skills, so they can enroll in the open schooling system set up by the state government as an alternative to formal schooling. The girls are sorted into groups based on their existing proficiency at language and math, and each group is then tutored separately, with the ultimate goal of helping all of them enroll in the 10th and 12th grade examinations conducted by the state.
The lessons incorporate classroom learning, games, and quizzes to evaluate progress. The participants help with chores around the camp, and are taught valuable life skills in the process. And most importantly, the girls at the camp experience the joy of learning, of camaraderie, of being young.
Doosra Dashak has impressed us with their homegrown, intensive approach to guiding these adolescent girls and bringing them up to a level where they are confident of passing their high school examinations. But even more impressive is their understanding of grass-roots reality and their ability to connect with these girls and their families in remote rural areas and convince them of the importance of education. Bloom & Give is honored to partner with them again, and to provide the funding needed to conduct this camp. We hope that these girls will go on to better their own lives, and through their example, the lives of many others in their communities.
As the festivities draw to a close, Kamran announces with a flourish, ‘And now, for the grand finale, I’m proud to introduce my sister, Simran. She is an alumnus of this camp, and has now completed her 12th grade at a regular school.’
Simran, in jeans and a shimmering top, makes an entrance like a seasoned star. She dances to a popular Hindi song, and soon has many of the other participants joining her. One of the tutors at the camp tells us that Simran came to a Doosra Dashak residential camp when she was 14. She had never been to school, but she was bright and eager to learn. She left 4 months later, determined to go to a regular school. She convinced her mother to enroll her at a government run residential school and passed her 10th and 12th grade exams with flying colors. She is now applying for scholarships so she can continue studying. It was her mother who brought Kamran to the camp so she could have the same opportunity that her sister did.
The show ends with that performance, but the image of those dancing, hopeful girls endures. It’s clear to us that the time spent here will change these girls’ lives forever, for the better.
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