TIRUNELVELI, India – Jacintha, 12, small for her age and slightly built, is the youngest of three sisters living in Aalankulum village, 6 miles (10km) from the town of Tirunelveli, in India’s Tamil Nadu state. Her parents can’t read or write. Her father Dharma Ray is a daily worker in a stone quarry and when he gets hired he makes 300 rupees – less than $5 – a day. Jacintha’s family lives in two small rooms, with no toilet or running water, in a community of Dalits, once known as “Untouchables.”
Discrimination based on caste was outlawed in India in 1949 but it still permeates the country’s rigid social system, especially in rural areas. Prejudicial treatment of Dalits, who are now officially recognized as one of India’s disadvantaged “scheduled castes,” is rife in all aspects of life, from access to healthcare and education to rights to own property, to work and to marry.
For girls like Jacintha, the discrimination is particularly harsh. They tend to be married young, risk early childbearing and all the associated health risks, and if they get work outside the home, it will be low-paid, menial or degrading, such as laboring, stone-quarrying or prostitution. Dalits make up the majority of India’s bonded and child labor and are often made to carry out unpleasant tasks including latrine cleaning, grave-digging and scavenging. Girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse.
All of these factors make it difficult for Dalit girls to stay in school. According to a UNICEF report released in 2014, some 11.9 million children between the ages of six and 13 are not in school in India, with by far the highest dropout rates among scheduled caste girls. “For Dalit girls it is difficult,” says Victordass Athisaraj, a social worker and Catholic brother who has worked with Dalit communities for more than 20 years. “Even if they are enrolled in education, they [usually] complete only up to fifth grade.”
Already beating the odds, Jacintha is now in seventh grade. In the little yard outside her home, she wears a neat red school uniform and sits cross-legged on a mat, focused on her books and ignoring the crowd of children and dogs playing around her. Without a chair, table or internet access, she does her homework for the international school she attends on the outskirts of Tirunelveli. Set up in 2014, with financial and educational support from Swiss-based organization Friends of India (FOI), the BCV International School offers free English-language education to some of the area’s poorest children. One-third of the students are Dalits and pay nothing for their schooling; the rest come from middle-class families who ensure the school is financially viable. “We want to give high-quality English-language education to the poorest children so they are motivated to succeed and can even go on to higher education,” says Athisaraj, who was instrumental in creating the school’s innovative approach to schooling.
When BCV International School opened, it had 20 children enrolled; now there are 200 on its books. By 2018, the school plans to have more than 400 children enrolled, with at least 130 of them from the Dalit community, who the staff refer to as “scholarship” children. During the summer holiday, teachers go out into the villages to recruit potential students. This is how Jacintha’s mother, Kanniyammal, heard about the school and the opportunity it presented for her youngest child.
Kanniyammal prepares sweet south Indian coffee, as rain pours through gaps in the corrugated iron roof of the family home. Jacintha and her aunt are rolling small cigarettes called “beedis.” Around Tirunelveli, as in many parts of India, many families make beedis to bring in a little extra money. Girls like Jacintha are expected to help, but the work is repetitive, monotonous and has health hazards due to the high exposure to tobacco dust – another factor that stops girls succeeding at school.
When new scholarship children join BCV International School, staff often have to help them integrate. “It takes them a while. Some have never sat at a desk or seen a book. They don’t travel out of the village, some have never seen a toilet before, everything is new,” says Diana Smith, a head teacher based in Switzerland who makes regular visits to train staff at the school. “But they all wear the same school uniform and that is very levelling.”
Smith also works with local staff to emphasize mutual respect between teachers and students. In some parts of India, Dalits still have to use separate utensils from higher castes, draw water from separate wells and sit at the back of classrooms. BCV International School makes no such distinction, to the point that students and parents are usually unaware of who pays fees and who does not. Smith says the social mixing is breaking down deeply entrenched caste divisions in new generations of learners. “It’s happening through respect for every single person in the school, from the children to the cleaners to the drivers,” she says.
For Jacintha, the chance at an education has given her a self-confidence and optimism that many Dalit girls never experience. And when she graduates, she plans to pass it on. “I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” she says.