Sonia Parveen had just stepped into her teens. She had big dreams—complete school, train and get a job as a nurse or a police officer. All of a sudden she got a marriage proposal from a slightly elderly man, but well-settled in life.
For a family of eight completely dependent on the income of Sonia’s father, an autorickshaw driver, nothing could have been better news. But Sonia resisted. “My parents did not talk to me for days. We are so poor that marriage is always considered a better option than education, even though marriages landed many girls in uncertain and unhappy life,” Sonia said between making cow-dung cakes. She will be taking her board examinations in a month. Sonia’s village Arijullapur in North 24 Parganas district wakes up to the crackle and laughter of over a thousand girls cycling their way to school, Arijullapur Siddiqa High Madrasah.
“It has been possible to make one-fourth of the population, especially girls, school-bound. This is largely because of the government’s Kanyashree Prakalpa—annual scholarships and one-time grant to encourage girl students of poor families to study,” said headmaster Abu Tahir Md Mustafa. Within a year after the scheme was launched on 1 October, 2013, the Madrasah saw a surprising increase in the number of girls attending higher classes. Dropouts among girl students fell from 100 to 30 and the number of child marriages went down from 30 a year to seven.
Kanyashree, the West Bengal government’s initiative to financially assist and help educate and empower women, has bagged the National e-governance Award, for outstanding performance in citizen-centric service and the Manthan Award in the Women and Empowerment category. Girls aged 13-18 are entitled to an annual scholarship Rs.500 and those older can get a one-time grant of Rs.25,000 provided that she pursues higher studies, takes up vocational training or starts a small business for her livelihood instead of getting married.