I met a young girl recently. She is a nurse — the first from her village in Hoshiarpur district of Punjab to go for a professional degree. Having worked in a private hospital at Nawanshahr, where she was paid the paltry sum of less than Rs 10,000 a month, she applied for a vacancy in the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMR) in Chandigarh and got selected. She is with PGIMR for about five years now and is earning above Rs 60,000 per month. Most of the girls from her village could not study beyond primary school as the middle level school was in the next village, about 3 km away. And a college was further away, in the town.
She was travelling from Chandigarh to Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh to attend the wedding of a senior resident doctor. It was her first air travel and she admitted the same very confidently, with an excited smile. She was not at all hesitant or apologetic. Chirpily, she confided that she is currently appearing for the Punjab and Haryana State Public Service Commission exams, and would later appear for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam too. She had already joined coaching classes for the same and negotiated good rates for herself, though she was finding it difficult to juggle between her nursing duties and coaching classes. She has to request the senior nurses and colleagues to “adjust” her shifts but is persisting in her endeavour nevertheless. The young girl has no pretence and is proud of her achievements. At the same time, she comes across as curious and adventurous, determined to go ever further.
This is the story that we need in India today and we need an abundance of such stories. Where girls not from privileged urban backgrounds, but from rural average households dare to dream and achieve. This needs an enabling environment: Schools in villages, colleges nearby, access to libraries, and, parents who are willing to send their daughters out to study, in case schools and colleges are not within the proximate area. Some time back I had visited “Women Help Line” in Lucknow and was told that a large number of distress calls were about harassment — in buses, on roads, in streets, practically everywhere. The police department that is running the helpline was encouraging girls to report such incidents, however, and had adopted various means to trace the errant boys: They are warned, initially, followed by criminal cases if they do not pay heed. This issue is rampant in most of India. No wonder parents have apprehensions about sending their daughters out to study, though enrolment and retention of girls in schools and colleges has improved considerably in the last decade. Providing safe travel and a secure atmosphere to girls for pursuing their education and career is the missing link that the community and government have to work on together. Or, families would continue to deny that very vital permission to their girls.
In the meanwhile, the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) has been successful in bridging the gap between the rural community and the health system in India. They have reduced infant mortality, child malnutrition and provided pre-school education. A similar bridge specifically for safe girls’ education needs to be built. The gram panchayat, especially the village police patil, known by different names and titles across the country, should be made responsible for coordinating the safety of girls’ movements. The beat officer of each police station and police outpost can supervise it — his uniform carries tremendous weight and can deter roadside romeos and molesters. Though the police don’t always have enough resources, they seem, at least, willing to chip in.
Recently, during a gender sensitisation training programme of the Goa police, I visited the women’s helpline, where the counselors received about 2,500 distress calls in the last six months. Most of them are about domestic violence, though some cases of harassment too are reported. It was a pleasant surprise to see that all the call takers are post graduates in counselling. Goa 181 is managed by GVK EMRI (Emergency Management and Research Institute), a not-for-profit professional organisation operating in the public-private partnership (PPP) mode. Such helplines definitely create an enabling environment and so do the gender sensitisation programmes being undertaken by each state police.
If we want girls and women to achieve their full potential, we have to double our efforts to reach out to the families. Efforts of the government alone, and even those of NGOs, will not be enough. Gram panchayats, police patils and beat police officers must coordinate with villagers so that girls can move around safely for their education and careers. Schools and libraries in rural areas, encouraging girls to cycle and move freely for their education and the sharing of success stories of educated young girls can be game-changers. Most states have already made girls’ education free, but the “permission to travel” out of the village is most often denied by the parents. Girls from Bihar cycling to school had made headlines some years back. We need to replicate the same all over the country through wide publicity in print and electronic media.
I met a young, freshly recruited (woman) police constable in the police lines of Pune city recently. I asked her what prompted her to join the police. She said it was her father, and then added proudly that two of her female cousins too had joined the police force thereafter. These fathers and families have to be on board with us if we want girls to enjoy the fruits of a good education and meaningful careers. Is it expecting too much, this Women’s Day?
The writer is former DG, Bureau of Police Research & Development and former Commissioner of Police, Pune.