Barabanki, U.P. (WFS) - Tabassum hates to sleep. She considers it a waste of time. Ever since her dream of going to school came true, every minute spent in anything else but studying is unbearable. After waiting for eight years to go to school, life suddenly changed for the 12-year-old the day an education official persuaded her parents to visit the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV), a residential school for girls in her village Ganeshpur, in district Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh.

Mumtaz Jahan, Principal of KGVB says that most parents are sceptical at first. Holding motivational camps and informing them that the textbooks, school uniforms and meals are free for the three years that the girls stay and study at the KGBV is the first step towards gaining their trust, according to Jahan. "Our biggest challenge is to convince them that sending their daughters to school will give them a better life than making them work in the fields. Some parents are so poor that they sometimes sell their daughters in the hope of easy money and ruin their lives," she says.

Tabassum's parents, too, wanted to know how sending her to school could be more profitable than the Rs.25 that she earned every day by working in the field. Although it took several meetings to explain how education could change their lives economically, it was Tabassum's overwhelming desire to study that tipped the scales in her favour.

But Tabassum is not the only one whose life has changed. The KGBV scheme - instituted under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) in 2005 to ensure access and quality elementary education (Class 6-8) to girls disadvantaged by gender and socio-economic reasons - has opened new doors hitherto closed because of discrimination and poverty. (The SSA is Government of India's flagship programme to universalise elementary education by community-ownership of the school system. The SSA also helps to bridge social, regional and gender gaps and is implemented in partnership with state governments.)

A working group instituted by the Planning Commission in 2006 on development of education for girls and other disadvantaged communities recommended that the KGBV scheme be extended to Class 12.

Of the 125 KGBVs sanctioned for UP initially, the state was able to set up only five in the first phase (beginning 2004-05). However, the success of these five KGBVs encouraged the state education department to set up 97 more KGBVs by the end of the academic year 2005-06. Another 133 KGBVs have been sanctioned for 2007 and the process of identifying girls and teachers has begun.

Education officials believe that this initiative will help UP discard the dubious distinction it has of being the state with the second highest number of out-of-school children (29,95,000). Bihar has the highest out-of-school children (31,76,000) and 82 per cent of them have never attended school. They are also confident that KGBVs, which have the same syllabus as formal schools, will address the gender gap in education in a more meaningful way.

This is not just because the scheme entails that 75 per cent of the enrolled girls belong to the Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), Other Backward Classes (OBC) and 25 per cent be from families below the poverty line. More importantly, KGBVs are opened in areas identified as Educationally Backward Blocks (EBBs), where, as per the 2001 Census, the rural female literacy is below the national average and the gender gap in literacy is below the national average. According to the 2001 Census, female literacy in Barabanki is only 15.8 per cent and the gender gap 27.7 per cent, both below the national average.

Since KGBVs focus on slightly older girls (10 years and above) who have never been to school or who are out of school, it gives these girls a second chance to fulfil their dreams. Neelu Singh, 13, who is in Class 8, wants to become a teacher. She has no intention of following in the footsteps of her elder sister, who got married at the age of 15. "I know now that it is not right to get married before the age of 18. But what is important to me is the opportunity to study and the hope to be able to study even beyond Class 8. I know that if I get married, I will have to cook, clean and produce children just like my sister. I want to do something more with my life," contends Neelu.

According to Sarita Singh, consultant, Girl's Education, Department of Education, UP, the KGBVs have raised awareness levels on a gamut of issues among the girls. "We were surprised at their desire to learn not just academics but also lifeskills. These have led to several changes in their personal habits and thinking. The biggest change among them is their resolve to resist all pressures to get married before the age of 18. Since most of the girls belong to marginalised and conservative communities, this is a huge achievement," she says.

Dr Asha Dinkar, District Co-ordinator, Girl's Education, District Institute of Education and Training (DIETS), says that even married girls have expressed the desire to study, once they heard from their friends, many of whom study at KGBVs, that not just education but accommodation and food was also free at the KGVB. "Many girls are married off before they get a chance to go to a school. But they still harbour a desire to study. Now that there is greater awareness about the need for education, these married girls say they will be able to convince their in-laws. This is good news for us," says Dinkar.

The good news for the girls of UP is that a stipend of Rs.50 is given every month to all the girls in KGBVs. This is an incentive not just to pursue studies till Class 8 but to also continue thereafter. A working group instituted by the Planning Commission in 2006 on development of education for girls and other disadvantaged communities recommended that the KGBV scheme be extended to Class 12. It has also suggested for the 11th Five-Year Plan that a financial incentive of Rs.3,000 be deposited in the name of the girl to be withdrawn only after she turns 18.

Manju wants to become a doctor; Archana wants to be a police officer, Muskan aspires to be an education official, Rukmini, a social worker and Francy, a journalist. Suddenly, girls are daring to dream. In Barabanki, thanks to the innovative KGBV scheme, over 2,000 girls who are out of school may be on the threshold of making their dreams come true. (Women's Feature Service)