Musahars, considered among India’s lowest castes, number an estimated 1.1 million in Bihar state alone. There is widespread poverty among the Dalit population, which faces vast discrimination, exploitation, violence and sexual harassment simply because of their lowly status in Indian society.
Although Musahar children have legal access to schools, resistance from teachers and higher caste students to their presence makes attendance close to impossible. There is, therefore, little opportunity for the children to advance beyond the desperate poverty in which their parents have lived.
In early 2011, ADMCF identified an organisation working with the women and children in Patna, the capital of Bihar state, Nari Gunjan (NG), and with support from the Richard Haugland Foundation (RHF) has helped boost NG’s work in rural areas. At the same time, ADMCF, again with RHF support, has helped Indian partner, Pratham, establish two drop-in education centres (DICs) in Patna itself. Currently, 301 Musahar children are enrolled in the Patna DICs, while 630 are learning in 18 schools for primary and secondary aged children. Another 353 younger children are enrolled in 10 Preschools run by Nari Gunjan in rural areas.
Ryan Glasgo, ADMCF’s finance director, recently visited Patna and surrounding areas with ADMCF Country Manager, Uma Subramanian, who over the past 18 months has worked with both Nari Gunjan and Pratham to develop their programs for the local Musahar community. Ryan writes a personal account below of his visit.
During a recent trip to India, I had the pleasure of visiting Nari Gunjan, a non-profit organization providing education, vocational training, healthcare, advocacy and life-skills for girls who are part of the Dalit community. These girls fall into the lowest rung of India’s caste ladder – the “Musahars” (“rat-eaters”). Although their livelihoods depend on agricultural work, the Musahars are primarily landless with extremely low literacy rates (approximately 0.9%). Little attention is paid to their education, health, and sanitation.
Nari Gunjan works to alter the stereotypes that surround the Musahar community and empower the girls who participate in their programs to be independent decision makers. Managing rural education centres for Musahar girls, Nari Gunjan also operates a boarding school in Prema Chatravas, a rural community near Patna, for further studies and residential care. The girls at the centre participate in a regimented schedule of activities that incorporate education, exercise, play and life lessons.
Our truck bounced across a dirt bank through flooded rice patties while our destination, a Musahar community on the outskirts of Patna, gradually rose in the distance. As we entered the village, the stench of home-brewed alcohol (notorious among the Musahars) infiltrated our nostrils. A storage facility in the heart of the village had been converted by Nari Gunjan to an education centre – a tiny, brick-walled building with thirty-five girls studiously seated on the ground. The ceiling fan staggered to life, spinning confetti into the air as we entered in a tribute to India’s insistence on gracious hospitality.
Uma immediately began quizzing the children, testing them in their recent subjects: living vs. non-living things and parts of the body. The girls responded confidently and enthusiastically, smiling in knowing response. Following the pop quiz, we went next door to the early education center. Tiny toddlers burst out of the group to proudly deliver solo songs and poems. They returned to the pack and the support of the older children who had encouraged their participation.
The children gathered in the center of the village to perform a rehearsed role-play between a mother and daughter. The play involved common subjects within the community: Child marriage, education prohibition and child labor. Previously considered taboo, these subjects had become accepted among the community and mothers gathered to form a circular audience.
One girl solemnly acted the part of a mother, bereaved at her child’s desire to attend school and avoid marriage, while another girl stomped around the dirt stage complaining about her mother’s obstruction of her dreams. The skit ended with the girl helping her mother avoid a scam artist who attempted to overcharge the mother; the girl, as a result of her education, could easily perform simple arithmetic and calculate the thief’s malicious intent.
Villagers applauded their daughters’ reenactments of familiar and sensitive family tensions and the girls broke into song, finishing their performance with an empowering chant and fists held high in unity.