When Nikita and her friends complained to their mothers about the harassment, they were told to pipe down. “Har roz izzat uchlegee (You will be dishonoured every day). It is better to stop school and stay home than face disrespect,“ Sunita, the mother of one of the girls, advised.
But Nikita and 86 other teen agers living in the heart of patriarchal Haryana decided that silence wasn’t an option. The Class 9 and 10 students sat on a dharna to demand that their school be upgraded to Class 12 so that they wouldn’t have to travel. About 13 of them held an indefinite hunger strike that lasted eight days (and nights), bringing their parents, the village sarpanch, and even the state government to their knees. In fact, they’ve even inspired copycat protests in villages of Palwal and Gurugram.
Haryana is among the states with the lowest child sex ratios in the country, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to launch the `Beti bachao, beti padhao’ programme from neighbouring Panipat. In Kawali, the walls have phone numbers under girls’ names and college boys lounge around on motorcycles with a practised air of cool. A liquor vend down the road is also a hangout for troublemakers. A Kawali boy was murdered after he misbehaved with a Gothra girl some years ago. But local police deny any complaints of molestation from Gothra village.
Dropping out of school never crossed the girls’ minds. And despite the peeling paint, broken wooden benches, dusty classrooms and lack of teachers (8 instead of 21), they held on to their fragile dreams. For one, it was becoming a doctor, a teacher for another, while for others it was a way out of poverty .
“No one listened to our demand. We asked our parents, spoke to the principal and the sarpanch but they didn’t bother,“ says Nikita. The girls then met at school and decided that some of them would sit on a hunger strike starting May 10, while others would support them.
Parents were quick to voice their disapproval. “My father-inlaw said, `It is foolish. Your daughter will die and nothing will come of it’,“ says Sapna, whose daughter Chahat fainted twice.
When Chahat refused to come home at night, Sapna decided to join her. “I never got a chance to study because my parents could not afford it. But I want Chahat to have every opportunity. I thought if I didn’t raise my voice, how would my children have a better life?“ she says from behind her ghoonghat.
Sarpanch Suresh Chauhan was a reluctant supporter, joining the girls on the third day . By the third day, a shamiana to shade the girls from the unrelenting sun and a carpet had appeared as did support from more parents. As press reports trickled in about the indefinite strike, the administration dusted off old files (the petition for the school upgrade is 17 years old) and pointed out that there had to be a minimum of 150 students for the school to be upgraded.
But as girl after girl fainted, an ambulance had to be stationed to take them to the Dahina health centre for glucose and injections.Despite the administration bearing down, the girls did not back down. “I was under a lot of pressure but the girls did not listen to me,“ Suresh says.
The girls’ tenacity and the media attention made it impossible for the government to ignore them. On the seventh day, Haryana education minister Ram Bilas Sharma announced the upgrade. The savvy girls responded by locking the school doors and demanding a written assurance. “Don’t promise, show us the notification“ was the refrain.On May 17, the district collector drove to the village to personally hand over the notification. It was only then that tetrapaks of juice and glasses of water were passed around and sunken eyes lit up. The notification states that a principal has been appointed, and admissions for Classes 11 and 12 can begin immediately .
Ekta Sharma, a Class 10 student, has not stopped giggling. “I am so happy,“ she says. Has the victory sunk in yet? The question is drowned by a roar of victory from her friends who pull her in for another photograph. Their future may hold different things in store but on that hot May afternoon, they were all winners.