Getting children back to school in Orissa

A volunteer demonstrates thorough hand washing in front of his classmates.

It’s a bright morning in the village of Nuaguda, in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, and Sanju, Manima and Daitari are on their way to school. Walking through the vivid green fields along a track still muddy from last night’s rain, they chat away noisily with classmates who haven’t seen them walk this path for months.

The three nine-year-olds were all enrolled in school at the beginning of the year, but they’ve all since dropped out. Each of their parents had decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to keep sending them to school when they could be working. This is not uncommon. According to the Indian Education Department, although 96% of India’s children start primary school, by the age of 10 around 40% have dropped out.

UNICEF are working to change that. I’m visiting Nuaguda with a team from Ekta, a small Indian human rights organisation who UNICEF supports. When the team first arrived yesterday they quickly realised that there were a high number of dropouts from the village school. Their first step was to organise a meeting with parents to explain what a difference education could make to their children’s lives.

Few of the adults who attended had spent much time in school themselves. They grew up in a time before the constitutional amendment, introduced last year, which makes education a compulsory and fundamental right for everyone from the ages of 6 to 14. This is an ideal which is taking time to become a reality, particularly in Orissa, one of India’s poorest states. Just over half of the region’s population are literate, placing the state well below the national literacy rate of 65%. In rural areas like this one, being literate is even rarer, especially for women. In Rayagada, the southern district where Nuaguda sits, just 34% of boys and 15% of girls will learn to read and write.

Ekta’s staff must work hard to persuade parents that broadened horizons in the future outweigh the small financial benefits of sending children out to work. Lulu, 24, is one of Ekta’s village facilitators. He’s from a nearby town, and he tells me of the lack of opportunities available to adults. “There is no education to help them provide a livelihood for their children,” he tells me.

Lulu works in a pair with his female colleague, Bharati, travelling from village to village. Their task doesn’t stop at getting children back into school. They also spread messages about the importance of cleanliness.

Today, they’re in the schoolyard before the midday meal to teach the children the importance of hand washing. Bharati holds a bar of soap aloft before pouring water over her hands and carefully scrubbing between her fingers. Then the children get to try, and Sanju is an eager volunteer.

Lulu explains that diarrhea is prevalent in Rayagada. Before they leave the village, the pair will distribute bars of soap to the families in the hope of creating a precedent for frequent hand washing and sparing the children the effects of this unpleasant and often fatal condition. Lulu tells me that he believes spreading the word about sanitation is one of the most important parts of his work. “I just want to help people lead a healthy life,” he says.

After the demonstration Lulu and Bharati will hold smaller workshops with target groups, such as talking to teenagers about sexual health or pregnant mothers about antenatal health checks. Then they will move on to another village. In the next two months, they and their colleagues will visit 1,000 villages spread across rural Orissa.

Ekta’s Amit Kumar Njayak oversees this vast project, and he is pleased with the progress the teams have made so far. “The villagers and the school teacher really appreciate the importance of this cause. If with this project we have been able to make a small difference in the life of the community then I think that all our work is on the right track.”

He knows, however, that their messages about education and cleanliness will take time to sink in. “We know that this is only the first step of our journey,” he says. “We still have a long way to go.

Originally published by UNICEF.