Saturday, December 24, 2005

‘My village is awakening like Lord Buddha’

Aditi Tandon talks to the inspiring Guriya Khatun, Unicef’s ambassador from a nondescript village in Bihar

Guriya Khatun with her mentor Sister Sabina.
Guriya Khatun with her mentor Sister Sabina. — Photos by the writer

Only a few people can dare destiny; still fewer can enslave it. Thirteen-year-old Guriya Khatun from a remote village of Bihar has managed to do both. No wonder when she spoke about her life at a function organised by Unicef in London last week, the gathering responded by a rapturous applause.

She was indeed a true representative of the world’s marginalised children — a poor child who had braved odds to turn her life around. What’s more, she has had the wisdom to know what is right for her.

It is this wisdom that places Guriya Khatun in a special league and makes her Unicef’s ambassador for the invisible and excluded children of the world, this year. Unicef’s Bihar chief Anupam Srivastava chose her after scanning various profiles for four months.

A babysitter to six younger siblings, this Class VII student cleared five grades in nine months. She’s the first girl from her village to attend school despite the threats she faced from orthodox Muslims.

Even now when she shoulders a huge responsibility on behalf of Unicef, she is calm and composed. Hers is a small but steadfast world where what matters is the hope that lies ahead, not the suffering that has been left behind.

Guriya would rather start a conversation by listing her strengths rather than seek sympathy by narrating her woes. So she strikes a perfect note with her introduction, "I belong to Karamadi village of Gaya district where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. Wisdom is in our roots. We may take long to realise our worth but I know we will. We are still very poor, very backward and very orthodox. We are afraid to change and to break free of stifling traditions. Girls in our families are still not supposed to step out of purdah unless it’s a question of the family’s survival."

It was to support her family that Guriya stepped out of the house for the first time. She would work for hours in the fields where her mother was a farm labourer. And after the day’s grind, they would return home with a handful of grain - their wages for the day. They would sleep hungry and return to the fields for another day’s work.

Guriya’s eyes go moist as she recalls, "My father went to Mumbai and never returned. Nor did he send us money. So we had to do something to earn our livelihood. I knew farm labour could not change our destiny. Education could."

As a 10-year-old, Guriya went to a madrasa in her village to gain elementary education.

She however dropped out when the fees became unaffordable. That was when she learnt of Mahila Samakhya, a state government-run project that provides free education to poor children. "Their activists held a camp in the village which I happened to attend," she says.

Guriya had found her answer but the question was whether the rigid Muslim community would approve of such an aberration? "The proposal was worth the risks involved," Guriya says. So one day she mustered the courage to speak to her mother about it. "My mother told me to shun the thought and forget school," says Guriya, "but I was too committed to retreat. I did not care for purdah.

I persisted until my mother left me to my fate. My grandmother called me names and the villagers threatened to "break my legs". But it was too less a price to be paid for education."

Guriya started her journey to literacy by attending the state-run "Jagjagi" centre at her village. "For the first time someone talked about my rights as a child and about the possibility of a bright future. I was awakened to the fruits of education," she recalls.

After receiving informal education at Jagjagi, Guriya joined Mahila Shikshan Kendra at Gaya, where she completed five years of education in nine months.

Guriya was accompanied to London by her mentor Sister Sabina, head of Mahila Samakhya in Bihar, who said, "Not only is Guriya exceptionally gifted, she is also conscious of the fact that she has lost many years of education. She wants to make up for that loss as soon as possible. We just promoted her to Class VII after she passed Class V and VI tests. She also attended our vocational courses like karate, sewing, tailoring, etc."

By far the finest product of Mahila Samakhya, a project which seeks to spread literacy among poor children, Guriya is now acting as a catalyst for a bigger change in Karamadi.

The name she brought to her nondescript village has inspired radical Muslims to send their daughters to school. Taking a cue from Guriya, 10 more girls from the village have joined Jagjagi.

Guriya still assists her mother at the farms every Sunday. And, on the rest of the days she walks 10 km to her school daily and comes back home to teach her six younger siblings. The days of threats to her life are over. "My village is awakening like Lord Buddha," Guriya wraps up with a smile.