From kitchen to classroom, thanks to mothers-in-law

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Nenu Devi, 19, was forced to drop out of school after Class 8 by her conservative parents and married off. But today she is pursuing her graduation thanks to a literal push by her mother-in-law and the prospect of a government job in the village.

She is not alone. Enticed by the robust job opportunities in the rural areas of Rajasthan’s Barmer district, scores of married tribal women are again joining schools to complete the education that was denied to them.

What is interesting is that in most cases, the first person to come out in their support is their mother-in-law — often stereotyped as a negative presence in Indian society.

“Over 2,000 married women, including some who were married at a very young age and had never held a book in their hands, are attending schools in rural areas. They are imitating those women in the neighbourhood who have got government jobs after attending classes,” a senior education department official said.

“A lot of women are joining anganwadi centres (government-run community centres for women and child welare). They are being recruited as helpers for implementing various government schemes meant for rural areas,” said the official.

The minimum qualification required for these jobs is Class 8.

Nenu Devi, who is pursuing BA from a private college in Dhorimanna, said: “I thought I’d never be able to join school again. I applied for a job as an anganwadi worker and got it due to my little education qualification. It encouraged my mother-in-law and she literally forced me to join school again.”

She says when other women in her village saw her working, they also got encouraged.

“Women here are usually kept in ‘ghunghat’ (veil covering head and face), but lots of them gave it up and are now attending schools,” said Nanu Devi.

Devi says at least two dozen women in her college were married off in their childhood.

This new phenomenon is bringing sweeping social changes in this Pakistan-bordering western district, over 550 km from state capital Jaipur. Most of the girls are around 15 or 16 years of age.

Another woman, Parvati, said the change in the area has come in the last three to four years. “Earlier, married women never thought of crossing the threshold of their house. Daughters were not allowed to study after the primary level, leave aside the daughters-in-law,” she said.

She recalls how she wanted to become a teacher and how her dream was crushed when her parents married her off at a young age – an age so shameful that she refuses to disclose it.

“My parents-in-law encouraged me to attend school. I am in Class 12 at the age of 22, but this doesn’t discourage me. I am determined to complete at least a Bachelor of Education (BEd) to realise my dream,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

Jaswant Singh Mayala, principal of Sanwaria School, a private school in Dhorimanna, said there are instances where families are sending both — daughters and daughters-in-law — to school.

As per panchayat samiti records, over 500 married women appeared for Class 8 and Class 10 examinations in the Dhorimanna and Chauthan areas this year.

Arun Sharma, an activist in the area, feels it would be now comparatively easier to eradicate social vices like child marriage.

“These women are getting a steady income of about Rs.2,000-3,000 every month. The money is helping their children get better education and has improved their life standards,” said Sharma. By Anil Sharma