SUCCESS STORY: Lucknow: where girls are educated 'too much'

Posted: 15 April 2003

For centuries, the North Indian city of Lucknow has had a conservative, mixed Hindu-Muslim population, whose traditional views disapprove of girls being too highly educated or taking employment. But as Meenakshi Shedde reports, the Family Planning Association of India is succeeding in changing community attitudes for the better.

Indian girl on bicycle, Lucknow, India© Meenakshi SheddeThere is something exhilarating about seeing teenage girls from Mallak village bicycle to a distant city college. It's because their village lies in the conservative, genteel, largely Muslim-populated district of Lucknow, in Uttar Pradesh in north India.

Dressed in neck to ankle salwar kameezes, with a dupatta (long scarf) across their breasts for additional modesty, a mere bicycle becomes an extraordinary vehicle of liberation for these girls, who live under a centuries-old shadow of the fear of girls 'being educated too much'. Their parents dismiss their desires for higher education, for they are afraid that suitable husbands, who have actually studied more than the girls, will be hard to come by. Worse, highly qualified boys will command much higher dowry from the girls' parents at the wedding. Girls' education is thus seen as a doubly lousy investment.

Humble bicycle

But the humble bicycle, in addition to giving wings to the girls' feet, is making their dreams fly as well. "If a girl is educated, she can get a job and supplement her husband's income, bring up her children better, as well as support her parents," says Anuradha Kashyap, who has made the entire village nervous by studying 'too much'. Too much, in this case, is a second year bachelor of arts, with economics and Hindi.

Phoolmati Kanojia, an old neighbour, complains, "Her progress also badly shows up the village boys, who have barely studied up to the eighth standard. The men are mostly agricultural labourers, earning barely Rs 50 a day in season. Many of the young men are louts, gambling and drinking like their fathers." Perhaps the urgency in Kashyap's desires comes from these observations as well. Hers is a simple, matter-of-fact attitude: if the men cannot be trusted, leave it to the women. Cherchez la femme becomes an imperative in this deceptively pastoral village of nodding wheatfields.

Some of the confidence of the women stems indirectly from the efforts of the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) Lucknow Branch. As Meena Kanojia, sarpanch (head of the panchayat or elected village council), says, "Mallak does not even have a primary health centre. But the FPAI has helped us set up a health committee headed by a panchayat member. They visit us regularly; give us health information and services, including immunisation, pregnancy care, advice on women's problems and AIDS. They have also done much to promote gender equality and girls' education."

Improved nutrition

Rameshwari, a traditional birth attendant, says, "Originally we used to be involved only in child delivery. After being trained by FPAI, we look after the women from the time they get pregnant till the infancy of the child. We make sure they get immunised, advise them about nutritious meals made of locally available produce, like greens, milk, gur (molasses), dal (lentils) and guavas. Contraception is also increasingly accepted. In fact, some women whose husbands refuse to use condoms secretly get copper-Ts [intrauterine devices] inserted. But they still try to persuade their husbands to use a condom, so they don't get suspicious."

In scores of Indian villages, women are still in purdah, but in Dewamau village in Lucknow district, it is astonishing to see young teenage girls looking a stranger straight in the eye and using body mapping (mapping the body's internal organs) to explain menstruation and pregnancy. The stupidity of traditional menstrual practices - like not having a bath or not entering the kitchen because the woman is 'defiled' - still persists.

There is not a single doctor for this village of 1,200 people. But the FPAI, in collaboration with the Devi Sansthan, another non-governmental organisation (NGO), has established a Swasthya Ghar (health home) that offers basic health services and education. It is run by villagers Ramavati Yadav and Manju Shukla, who have nursing training and can handle common illnesses like coughs, colds, fevers and diarrhoea. They also encourage use of contraceptives such as condoms, intrauterine devices and Mala-D oral contraception.

Says Asha Singh, Population Education Officer of the FPAI Lucknow Branch, "We had a workshop for the members of 18 gram panchayats (elected village councils). Thirty-three per cent of seats have been reserved for women, and FPAI encourages them to give reproductive and child health issues priority on the village agenda. Initially, it was hard to get the parents' permission to hold educational camps on these issues for adolescents. But we cautioned them that if something untoward happened to their children because of their ignorance of their bodies and of the healthy choices available, it would be entirely their responsibility. Then they usually cave in," she grins. As the body-mapping example shows, health education is dramatically changing the women's overall attitudes as well.

Thanks to this mobile education programme, largely run by volunteers, in the village of Sawai a doctor practising Ayurveda (traditional healing science) and homeopathy has been gently roped in to encourage contraception. And the owner of the local teashop, where villagers congregate, has become a stockist for contraceptive options.

Sohanlal Gupta, FPAI's outreach education officer in Sawai village, says, "Earlier, the men would be out working and the women would be locked in the house. All they ever thought about was the fields and their children. Now, for the first time, they are thinking about themselves and articulating their needs. Suddenly, a lot of women's illnesses have come into the open and they are demanding medical facilities."

Social sanction

It's a long haul and Asha Singh knows it. "Social sanction is the key to all our programmes," she points out. "We start with family meetings, then follow up with programmes that bring mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law together. We have long learnt that the mother-in-law is the gatekeeper of the family. Once we've earned her trust, we have access to her daughters-in-law. And once we've got the parents' approval, we can rope in the youngsters as well."

Since the major cutbacks in funding (at least partly a result of the US 'gag rule' which prevents funding for organisations, which support safe abortion services, even where they are legal), FPAI is trying to sustain existing programmes by networking with other NGOs and local voluntary groups.

Devi Sansthan is one such NGO. Says Janak Dulari, head of the health centre in Choudhury Khera village, "The Devi Sansthan and FPAI together established our health centre. The Devi Sansthan has also set up a school for girls and a library here with funds from the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. Midday meals for infants in the anganwadi crèche) are sponsored by the Catholic Relief Services. The combined effort of these NGOs is there for all to see."

Community assets

Another volunteer group is the Youth Caravan, which has devised an educator programme run by young people themselves. Says volunteer Anup Singh, 22, "We take advantage of the fact that adolescents listen to their peers rather than their parents. As we bond with our friends, we are trained to offer counselling for examinations and careers. We try to help boys set goals and motivate them to achieve them, instead of only getting distracted by girls. We also encourage gender equality and responsible sexual practices. Moreover, we aim to make optimal use of community assets such as banks (we popularise bank loan schemes), primary health centres (we promote sexual and reproductive health) and anganwadis (crèches) - we distribute midday meals to infants and promote immunisation)."

Asha Singh, the inspiration behind FPAI Lucknow Branch's continuing success, is a remarkable woman. The last thing you expect in a conservative city is a woman in a white shirt, black pants and short, cropped hair. The challenges before her only make her more resolute. In Lucknow's age-old traditional environment, the goals of family development and small families seem particularly challenging, and FPAI's gains far more hard-won.

No wonder Singh's fans are legion. Besides, they adore her in her 'modern' shirt-pant, and feel let down when she wears sarees. As Anuradha Kashyap of Mallak village sums up, "I'd like to be independent like Asha didi (elder sister). If we are able to follow her example, we would be honouring her name."

Meenakshi Shedde is Assistant Editor and film critic with the Times of India in Mumbai.Related link:IPPF South Asia Region (SAR)Real Lives