On April 3, Sujata Chauhan appeared for a three-hour Math exam, the last test of her Class 10 board examination. It was a subject she enjoyed studying and hoped to pursue in the future. But, there was a small hurdle: the Government High School in Haryana’s Gothra village, where Sujata studied, did not offer classes beyond Class 10. To pursue her Class 11 education, the 16-year-old would have to take admission in a government school in the neighbouring Kanwali village in Rewari district, 3 km away.
But that was a “risk” neither Sujata nor her family was willing to take. “I had heard horror stories from my older sisters and girls in the village. It’s a half-an-hour walk to Kanwali and men on bikes harass women through the entire stretch — koi dupatta kheechta hai, koi gande gaane gaata hai (some pull your dupatta, some sing vulgar songs). I did not want to go through it,” says Sujata, now dressed in her school uniform — a pink salwaar-kameez and white dupatta; her hair in a plait.
Confused about her future, Sujata, whose father works as a cotton and wheat farmer, decided to talk to her parents. “They flatly said, leave school and help out in the house. Hamein aisi padhai ki zaroorat nahi hai (We don’t need education at this cost),” she recalls grimly. “But for me that wasn’t an option. I wanted to continue my studies.”
Several girls in Sujata’s school also found themselves in a similar situation. “The girls in our village who were attending Classes 11 and 12 in Kanwali were sick of the harassment, too. Sabki sahanshakti khatam ho gayi thi (We had lost all patience),” she says.
So on May 10, 83 girls of Classes 10, 11 and 12 began a protest and urged the authorities to upgrade the government school in Gothra village. Thirteen students, including Sujata, also went on an indefinite hunger strike. “Many journalists came to the village to cover the story,” says Sudha Yadav, 17, a Class 12 student who has now joined Sujata, along with a few other students, in a freshly painted classroom of the village school.
Within a week of the girls’ protests, the state education department agreed to upgrade the school. “The name of the school has been changed to Government Senior Secondary School and classes for 11 and 12 began from the next day itself. We are only offering Arts stream now. We will need more resources for beginning the Science and Commerce classes,” says Satish Kumar, 52, the principal of the school, adding that while the number of girl students in the school is much more compared to boys, “It is only because parents prefer to send their sons to private schools”.
Though Sujata is slightly disappointed because she couldn’t take up Science in Class 11, she is “relieved” she was spared the troublesome journey to Kanwali village. For Sudha, attending Class 12 in her village school, a few metres away from home, is a welcome change, but there is something she is going to miss about her daily trips to Kanwali. “That half an hour was the only time we got to talk to friends, laugh about things, discuss village gossip. After school, we have to go home and are not allowed to step out without our parents. I will miss that,” says Sudha, whose father, too, is a farmer. “Boys are allowed to loiter after school, we can’t do that. Most girls get married after Class 12 or drop out mid-way. There is no cinema hall or park here. I wish there was a park where we could all meet in the evening,” says Neha Yadav, 16. “Though the men don’t harass us in the village, our parents are always scared that something untoward may happen,” says the Class 11 student.
A small village on the Rewari-Narnaul road, Gothra has a population of 2,606 spread over 549 households. The average literacy rate in the village, 68.64 per cent, is much below the national average of 74 per cent. The female literacy rate, 41.19 per cent, is also much lower than that of the men in the village, which is 58.8 per cent.
Back in the classroom, the girls begin to animatedly discuss the Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal, a sports drama based on real life wrestlers from Haryana, Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari, which was playing on TV the previous evening. “Yahan gaon mein koi facilities nahin hai, warna toh Haryana ki ladkiyon ka physical toh strong hi hota hai (There are no facilities here in the village, but girls in Haryana have good physical strength). If we trained, I am sure we would do well at wrestling,” says Sujata.
The 16-year-old’s elder sister has cleared the physical exam for Delhi Police and is now taking coaching classes in Rewari for the written test and interview. “Even I want to get into Delhi Police or Haryana Police. Our parents are open to that, or maybe a job in the bank,” she says.
“There are four girls in the village whose parents have allowed them to play hockey, but they go to Kanwali to train. I am sure, given the harassment on the way, they will give up the sport soon,” says Neha.
Most girls admit to have never stepped outside the village, except for the odd trip to Rewari in the Haryana Roadways bus to visit a doctor or to shop. Some of them also fondly remember the school trip to Delhi in Class 10. “We saw everything: Lal Qila, Qutub Minar, India Gate. We had ice-cream too. I love everything about Delhi,” says Chahat Chauhan, now a Class 11 student.
“Most girls in Delhi were wearing jeans. Here, we can only wear them till Class 6 or 7, definitely not after marriage,” says Sudha. “Everyone had left their hair loose and they were wearing make-up as well. We can do that only once we are married,” says Sujata, as the group disperses for lunch amid laughter.
As she heads home, Sujata, the youngest of four siblings — two older sisters and an older brother — begins to discuss her future goals. “I plan to take coaching for police exams, I also want to take spoken English classes. Wahin reh jaate hain. Rewari mein classes hoti hain (We fall short there, I have heard of classes in Rewari) ,” she says.
At her two-room brick home, as Sujata hurriedly eats two dry chapatis with a cup of tea, her mother Maya, 45, points out that she has no issues with her daughters pursuing a career, but that does little to change things. “Eventually, they have to get married. Families ask for jewellery, 11 lakh in cash and a car for marriage. They will not reduce the dowry even if the girl has a job. This is a small village with no facilities or opportunities. We have, at least, got our daughters educated. But, ultimately, it is the work that they learn in the kitchen that will help them in the future,” says Maya, patting the two buffaloes tied to a pole in the yard. “We have raised our daughters well — they don’t go out in the evening, they don’t use phones and they know how to cook and clean,” she says.
After listening to her mother for a few minutes with a blank face, Sujata gets up to leave for school. “Mujhe toh sab karne ka mann karta hai — padhna hai, naukri karni hai, par Gothra mein ladki hai toh bas ladki hi hai (I want to do everything — study, get a job. But in Gothra village, if you are a girl, then that is all that you are).”