Grains of sand in Rajasthan

by Tessie San Martin

Tessie is Plan International USA's President/CEO

Chandni's mother is a prostitute, HIV positive. Chandni is the youngest of 4 sisters (no brothers). Two of her sisters are prostitutes in Delhi. They send money back to help take care of the family and keep Chandni in school (Chandni's traveling costs to cover the 20km - about 12 miles- a day to school are more than her mother earns). The third sister is sick at home (HIV/AIDS). Chandni says she wants to be a doctor to help her sister get better. So she is trying to stay in school.

But nothing is easy. In addition to the 12 miles she covers to get to school, Chandni walks another 10 km (6 miles) to fetch water for her mother and sisters before and after school. After she gets the water and prepares the meal and cleans the house, she does her homework. Chandni is an optimist, however. And Plan's programs in Bharatpur, made possible by our donors, are helping to even the odds.

Bharatpur is among the poorest of Rajasthan's 33 districts. And Rajasthan is itself in the bottom half of India's states. About a quarter of the population consists of Scheduled Castes and Tribes. The Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs) are two groupings of historically disadvantaged people in India, in the lowest socioeconomic strata in India.

More than 70% of the women in this region are illiterate. Economic opportunities are limited. Only 28% of the population reports working and only 24% have access to land. One third of the population is living on less than a dollar a day. There are some safety nets in India which can help. For example, the government created the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in which every state is supposed to guarantee at least 100 days of paid work every year to each rural household that needs work. But very few poor households in Roopwas know of the program, or how to access it.

It should not be surprising that in this context, prostitution provides an easy source of cash for the families (and the low value placed on girls doesn't help). In fact, over the years, prostitution has become the primary source of income for these families. As a result, a staggeringly high number of girls from these very poor communities engage in prostitution.

This helps to explain why there is an extremely high drop out ratio for girls. They have one of two very unpalatable choices: prostitution or early marriage (believed to be as high as 65%). The problem seems to big too tackle. There are complex social, cultural and economic issues intertwined, and conspiring against Chandni's (or any village girl's) dream of a different life.

Plan is facilitating and coordinating a number of programs that integrate access to school, health services and leadership training for the children, with livelihood and leadership development activities for the mothers, along with community awareness. Traditional activities to increase access to quality education (e.g. teacher training) are combined with school construction, and complemented with children's empowerment programs which teach children about their rights and provide a safe place for them to play and engage in after school activities.

Mothers are introduced to Self-Help Groups (SHG) that serve both as a support group and as a savings and loans mechanism, where they build up savings they can then tap to meet emergency needs or fund business ventures to get extra cash. And Plan is working with local authorities to improve this disadvantaged population's access to safety net programs.

This is all slow and very complicated work. It requires changing mind-sets, not just delivering services. These programs cannot work unless there is trust between the communities and Plan and its partners. This takes time. We can only do this work because of our donors, whose commitment to the long term makes it possible for us to develop the networks, the relationships and the trust.

And what are the results?

We have reason to feel optimistic. Girls attendance and completion rates for primary school are improving (though still well below that of boys). Plan counseling, particularly targeting the parents (mothers especially) and community leaders, enhances their commitment to keep the children in school. The SHGs also seem to be helping, enabling the mothers to feel at least less vulnerable because of the moral and financial support the group provides. And we know that girls who complete at least primary school are much less likely to be married early or get trapped into prostitution.

These a small successes, in contrast with the enormity of the problems. But they are grains of sand that bit by bit change the game for girls in Roopwas. You have to start somewhere.