"They Say We Are Dirty"
In this report, Human Rights Watch examines the obstacles preventing certain children from attending school and the government's failure to take the steps necessary to address the problem. Discrimination remains a major factor affecting access to education for children from marginalized communities, including Dalits, tribal groups, and Muslims.
Already vulnerable because of socio-economic challenges, these children need special attention and encouragement to remain in school. Instead, a lack of proper monitoring leaves such children vulnerable to exclusion, denying them the right to a child-friendly and equitable environment as set out under the Right to Education Act. Poor monitoring also results in poor retention of at risk children, many of whom end up pushed into work and early marriage.
"The teacher always made us sit in a corner of the room, and would throw keys at us [when she was angry]. We only got food if anything was left after other children were served…. [G]radually [we] stopped going to school." — Shyam, 14, Dalit boy from Uttar Pradesh now working at a brick kiln,
"When you speak with officials about the right to education, they love to talk about plans and circulars. But ask them about implementation—and they hem and haw. They have nothing". — Sanat Sinha, chief coordinator, Bal Sakha, Patna, July 2013 In 2009, India enacted the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, which provides for free and compulsory education to all children aged 6 to 14 based on principles of equity and non-discrimination. For a country that six decades ago at independence had staggering poverty and illiteracy levels, this was an overdue but ambitious step to meet its domestic and internationally recognized obligations to its children. It also testified to India's increasing confidence as an emerging economy with one of the youngest and largest work forces in the world.
However, four years after it came into force, the Right to Education Act is yet to be properly implemented. While nearly all primary school children are enrolled in school, many millions do not actually attend classes. Often, this is because their caste, ethnicity, economic condition, religion, or gender acts as a barrier to education. Most children with disabilities are excluded from government schools due to lack of teachers with specialized training, and inadequate facilities and care.
State governments typically ignore the problem. Detailed plans to monitor and track each child's progress have not been implemented by the authorities, be they district or state officials, village committees, school principals, or teachers. According to the United
Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 80 million Indian children drop out of school before completing elementary education.
April 1, 2013, was the three-year deadline to implement key provisions of the Right to Education Act. The government has made noteworthy progress in some areas, but did not meet several important targets. While net enrollment in primary schools is now nearly 100 percent, regular attendance and retention continues to be a major challenge. Local rights groups say that mechanisms still have not been put in place for tracking children's attendance, mapping exclusion, and setting up adequate number of “bridge” courses so that children who drop out or start school at a later age can catch up to their peers in ageappropriate classes.
The central government recognizes that exclusion—based on children's caste, class, gender, and special needs can take many forms and affect access, participation, etention, achievement, and completion of elementary education— is therefore, the “single most important challenge in universalising elementary education” and has drafted policies under the Right to Education Act to keep its poorest and most vulnerable in attendance.
Although education officials hesitate to admit the existence of segregation or discrimination in schools, a 2012 study commissioned by the government's flagship education program, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, found exclusionary practices in schools and said there was an urgent need for the authorities to acknowledge and address them.
Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report in four states in India, interviewing more than 160 people, including 85 children, to examine continuing obstacles to proper implementation of the Right to Education Act.
We did not conduct surveys or undertake statistical analysis, but instead offer a qualitative study; findings are drawn from interviews with children, parents, and a wide range of education experts, rights activists, local authorities, and education officials, as well as from our analysis of reports and other secondary sources.
We undertook the research in partnership with local groups who helped us identify children most at risk of being excluded from school.
This report finds that discrimination takes various forms, including teachers asking Dalit children to sit separately, making insulting remarks about Muslim and tribal students, and village authorities not responding when girls are kept from the classroom.
Teachers and other students often address these children using derogatory terms for their caste, community, tribe, or religion. In some schools, children from vulnerable communities are not ever considered for leadership roles such as class monitor because of their caste or community. Many are expected to perform unpleasant jobs such as cleaning toilets.
Schools in marginalized neighborhoods often have the poorest infrastructure and least well-trained teachers; many have fewer teachers than required.
In Uttar Pradesh state's Sonbhadra district, for example, students belonging to the Ghasiya tribal community told Human Rights Watch that they suffer discrimination at their school from teachers and fellow students, and that teachers at best pay them little attention. Many of these children, facing such obstacles, attend school only sporadically.
Some stop going to school altogether.
In one school we visited, 58 Ghasiya children were placed in a single grade irrespective of their ages, and were asked to sit separately from the other students. One of the children told Human Rights Watch: "The teacher tells us to sit on the other side. If we sit with others, she scolds us and asks us to sit separately … The teacher doesn't sit with us because she says we ‘are dirty.' The other children also call us dirty everyday so sometimes we get angry and hit them.
The school principal told Human Rights Watch that the tribal children were a “big problem”: These Ghasiya children come to school late, come when they want to come, no matter how much we tell them to come on time. Their main aim is to come and eat, not to study. Just see how dirty they are.
Many Dalit children who spoke to Human Rights Watch complained of prejudice from teaching staff and fellow students. Priya, a Dalit from Bihar, told Human Rights Watch: “Other children don't let us sit with them. Some of the girls say, ‘Yuck, you people are Dom [street sweepers] – a dirty caste….' The teachers never say anything even when we complain.”
Such discriminatory behavior contributes to increased truancy. Several children in Priya's neighborhood admit they attend school irregularly because they do not like the unwelcome atmosphere. The children stay away, fall behind in classes, and eventually drop out.
An education activist in Bihar told Human Rights Watch, “Dalit children are made to feel inferior in schools and the schools reinforce caste norms. When it comes to any manual work such as cleaning of classrooms or picking up garbage, it's always the Dalit children who are asked to do it.”
In other locations, we found Muslim children being neglected by the school system. Twelve-year old Sahir from Delhi told Human Rights Watch that Muslim children are left out of extra-curricular activities and leadership roles. “The teachers don't let us participate in any sports. Class monitors are always chosen from among Hindu boys and they always complain about us Muslim boys.”
The lead author of the 2006 Sachar committee report on the status of the Muslim community told Human Rights Watch: “There is a systemic bias against Muslims in India… which is carried forward in education too.” Predominantly Muslim areas in some parts of the country suffer from a lack of schools.
The situation is worse for girls. According to government statistics, the dropout rate among adolescent girls is as high as 64 percent. A significant number of these are girls from Dalit, tribal, and Muslim communities, who leave school without completing grade VIII, usually when nearing puberty.
They are particularly vulnerable to child marriage. Their largely wage earning parents worry about leaving a teenage girl alone at home, and prefer to marry them early, fearing that unmarried teenage girls face greater risks of sexual abuse. Although the Right to Education Act proposes interventions to keep girls from vulnerable communities in the classroom, those mechanisms have not been effectively implemented.
Sharda, a Dalit girl, was withdrawn from school by her parents because they were worried about her safety. She was married at age 14 against her will. Before her wedding, when she went to school despite her parents' refusal, she found that her name was no longer in the school register.
While some villagers cautioned her father against marrying her at such a young age, no local authorities or members of the gram panchayat (village level council) intervened. “There was no one I could turn to who would help me,” she told Human Rights Watch.
Weak implementation of education policies is pushing children into labor markets. Many child workers are children of seasonal migrant laborers who come from poor, landless, and marginalized communities. By some estimates, about six million children in India accompany their parents when they migrate for work.
As Human Rights Watch research found and other studies have noted, access to schools remains one of the biggest hurdles for migrant children. Many work sites are distant from schools and when migrant children return to their homes after migration season, they are far behind in classes.
Ten-year old Reema migrated from Chhattisgarh to Gurgaon with her parents in 2010 and since then has spent most of her time on various construction sites. When Human Rights Watch researchers met her, Reema was attending a non-formal education center run by an NGO at the construction site where her family is living.
But it was a temporary solution; once her family moved, Reema would be out of school again. Geeta Rawat, a teacher at the NGO-run center, said they tried to enroll all children between 6 and 14 years in a government primary school nearby, but it was a challenge.
She said: “Teachers are reluctant to admit these children because they know the children will move away from here after a few months.” The Right to Education Act includes a provision addressing the needs of migrant children but it remains poorly implemented.
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