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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

REPORT: Begging for Education

A story of discrimination in India-and the determined efforts to overcome it.

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The colony's children with their tutor, Sanju Devi (Photo credit: Ram Barai Sah)
Last November, a delegation from National Forum India (NFI), an organization of people affected by leprosy founded in 2006, visited a colony in Areraj, a small town between Patna and Raxaul in Bihar state. The colony's population includes 29 children. When we arrived one morning, we were surprised to find them playing outside.

"Why aren't the children at school?" we asked the colony leader. "None of the schools will accept them," he replied. "I've tried sending them, but the teachers send them back."

I was ashamed that I had not been aware of this problem and decided to take up the children's cause. There are four government-run primary schools in Areraj. I visited all four schools, accompanied by the 29 children. When we met the school principals, each gave the same reply: "Your colony is not in our area. Please go to another school."

"Your colony is not in our area," each of the principals told us. "Please go to another school."

As none of the schools were prepared to take the children, I approached the head of the local panchayat (village council). He accompanied me when I called at the residence of one of the school principals and again requested that she admit the children to her school.

This time she promised she would, but on one condition: the children must bring their own lunch plates with them and keep them separate from those belonging to the other children.

Next day, I took the 29 children to the school. After watching them enter, I went to the market to buy them lunch plates and stationery. I donated Rs. 300 from my own pocket and the panchayat head contributed another Rs. 300. But as I was making my purchases, I saw the children. "Our teacher has sent us home," they told me.

PETITION

Apparently, the principal, who was absent that day, had told her teachers I was from the education department, to convince them to take the children. But when one of the teachers learned from the children that I also came from a leprosy colony, she decided it would be OK to send them away.

The next day, I wrote a petition to the District Educational Officer (DEO), seeking to have the children admitted to school. I also alerted a journalist from the local newspaper. I submitted my petition to the DEO the following day.

In front of me, he picked up the phone and called Areraj's Block Educational Officer (BEO), demanding that he suspend the teacher who had told the children to go home. The DEO told me, "If the BEO does not deal with the situation within three days, come to me again and I will suspend the BEO as well."

The next day, the BEO called me and instructed me to take the children to one of the other schools, which said it would accept them. When we arrived, I asked the pupils there to play with the colony children. "They are just like you," I said. My message to the teachers was: "These children are also your children. You see people coming door-to-door at the market, begging for food. We are not begging for food or money; we are begging for education."

MORE HURDLES

This was not the end of the story. Three days later, I heard that the children had been sent home again. As I was traveling to Chennai for an NFI board meeting, I asked Mr. Kamlesh, NFI's state leader for Bihar, to go to Areraj and follow up.

Within days, the BEO invited all teachers of the block to a meeting. He scolded them for rejecting the colony children. "Look at him," the BEO said, pointing to Kamlesh. "He's working very closely with leprosy-affected people, but he is not infected. Why should you be afraid?" He said this, not knowing that Kamlesh was also a person affected by the disease.

As a result of this meeting, the children were allowed to go back to school. They received stationery and uniforms, thanks to a donation from a German voluntary organization. These were presented to them by the BEO at a function I organized. I also invited members of Sam Uttan, a committee of people affected by leprosy in Bihar, which is affiliated with NFI. In addition, through my son, who is studying in Delhi, I invited the leader of the Bihar Students' Union, who happens to be from Areraj.

"I am also affected by leprosy," I told the gathering. "If this disease is infectious, my son should also be affected by it. But he is not; he is healthy. My son studies at university in Delhi. Why can't these children study at primary school?"

The head of the panchayat was surprised to learn I was a person affected by leprosy. "But you have taken tea at my house many times," he said. He remains very supportive, but since then he offers me tea in a plastic cup.

SEARCH FOR A TUTOR

With the children's school admission finally settled, I went in search of a tutor to help them with their studies. I visited more than 10 prospects, always to be told, "Rent a room outside the colony and bring the children there. I will not go to the colony."

Once more, I consulted the panchayat head. He introduced me to Ms. Sanju Devi. She was the first and only teacher who agreed to tutor the children where they live. To my surprise, I found out that she is related to the teacher who sent the children home. She comes to the colony six days a week.

The colony's 29 children now attend school regularly. But they are made to sit outside the classroom and must bring their own plates.

When I raised this with the BEO, he told me, "Just as you have fought to have these children admitted to school, the villagers are fighting to have them sent away."

We have achieved much in Areraj, but discrimination continues - and so do our efforts to have the children fully accepted.

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AUTHOR: Ram Barai Sah

Ram Barai Sah is a trustee of National Forum India. He lives in Little Flower, a colony for people affected by leprosy in Bihar state near the border with Nepal.