When 11-year-old Durga Jadav awoke to find that she’d begun to menstruate, she wondered if she’d return to school.
“I like school,” she said. “Unlike some girls who only go because their parents make them.” The Annual Survey of Education Report, or ASER, published by the non-profit organization Pratham in January, shows that girls aged 11 to 14 years old are most likely to drop out of school in India. The “monthly,” as Ms.Jadav refers to her menstrual cycle, is one reason why.
The Jadavs are Mati Wadars. Mati means soil, and people of this impoverished low caste have traditionally dug and leveled soil. Girls are married off young, and may have as many as three children before they turn 21.
One reason they get married early is their poor access to housing, which leaves girls vulnerable to predatory men as they go about their daily life. A lack of employment opportunities has forced them out of their villages and into urban areas. But if in the village they were made to live apart from their neighbors of higher castes, they have also been marginalized in cities.
The Jadavs live on a pavement under a bridge that spans a busy highway in suburban Mumbai. There are nine of them and a dog called Rani. Their shelter is made out of cement sacks held up by sticks purloined from construction sites. At night, the shelter is given over to the oldest married son, his wife, and three children. Everyone else sleeps in the open. To protect themselves from rats, the family swaddles itself in blankets. They also keep a bamboo pole handy. Despite precautions, their lives remain precarious. A neighbor’s baby was killed instantly when a drunk driver crashed into their shelter five years ago. A teenager Durga knew was abducted and raped. And in 2009 some people who live in the apartment building behind them decided that they were “dirty” and should move. “They poured kerosene over our belongings one morning,” recalls Durpada Jadav, Durga’s mother. “We lost our home, utensils, clothes. I saw my wedding sari burn to ashes.”
Given the reality of Durga’s life, Pratham’s figures shouldn’t come as a surprise. But the results of the 2011 Census had expectations up. According to the Census, 74.04 percent of Indians are now literate, up by 9.21 percentage points from 2001. Women’s literacy is at 65.46 percent, up by 11.79 points.
But these numbers represent a population of 1.2 billion people, of which half are under 25.
Read it all at the New York Times here.