Teen girls farm, cook and teach for a cause

 Teen girls of Madanpur village in Jharkhand district have proactively solved the dual problem of lack of primary education and midday meals, by volunteering to teach, cook, and grow a vegetable garden right within the school premises, finds-out Saadia Azim.

When school teachers in Madanpur village of Devipur block in the Jharkhand district of Deoghar went on a two-month strike in 2012, a group of young girls from the village formed the ‘Jyoti Yuvati Club’ and convinced the school management to let them oversee the day-to-day functioning at the local primary school.

The initiative, started as an attempt to support the educational activities of the school, has been branched out and now has a mission against malnutrition. Today, members of the Jyoti Yuvati Club, supported by Abhivyakti Foundation – a socio-cultural group based in the district – also tend to a vegetable garden from its premises, supplying leafy greens to the school canteen. As the girls took on the task of conducting classes and the school remained functional during the strike period, the management committee had to keep the kitchen running as well and hence the girls were given the opportunity to develop the kitchen garden. Moreover, this project is now being replicated in 19 other primary schools spread across three panchayats in Deoghar.

Proactive girls

Malnutrition is one of the most persistent problems in Deoghar with more than 50 per cent children in the district being stunted and every second child being underweight. According to a study of 3700 households conducted in 2011 by a group of NGOs working on this health crisis, every twelfth child in the district is severely malnourished. Further, more than half the population here is illiterate with only one out of nine persons pursuing an education beyond primary school.

These young girls, aged between 14 and 18 years, who were once barred from stepping out of their homes by their highly patriarchal communities, are now addressing serious issues of hunger, nutrition, sanitation, child marriage, reproductive health and education in their villages. And their parents, who were once unsure of their daughters’ actions, are supporting them wholeheartedly in their efforts to change the nutritional status of the children in the area.

Dual-forked solution

Solving two problems with one solution are the lush vegetable gardens in select villages. Kranti Kumari, daughter of a local farmer, who leads the team of girls in Madanpur village, is happy with the work they have undertaken. She says, “When we saw that there was a big patch of wasteland in the school premises and no one around to cook mid-day meals for students, we volunteered to do so. Younger students came only when they knew there was food to eat. So to keep children in class and provide them with a proper meal we started growing vegetables on this patch. We began when the teachers’ strike had started and by the time it was over there were vegetables in the garden. It takes two months for leafy vegetables like ‘pui saag’ and spinach to be ready for plucking, while gourds, brinjals, tomatoes and beans are ready in a span of three months.”

Wholesome education

The kitchen garden model has proved to be a godsend. “Earlier, the students used to get only khichdi (rice and lentils). By way of vegetables, there was only potato. But with our girls maintaining the garden, where they grow green leafy vegetables as well as gourds and beans, the children get the best vegetables in their daily meals,” says Basudev Singh, the father of Mamata Kumari, 14, another member of the Jyoti Yuvati club at Mandanpur. Of course, apart from taking turns to maintain the gardens, the girls keep a record of the vegetables grown, use them for daily mid-day meals in several primary schools and motivate other school kids to maintain similar vegetable gardens in their schools as well.

Farming with cause

Kranti, who studies in Baltharwa Middle School, is proud to belong to a farming family, “Since we are all daughters of farmers we know how to till the land. We are glad that children who had earlier eaten only starchy foods like rice and potatoes now have more proteins and other nutrients in their meals.”

Besides ensuring more balanced meals for the local children, the kitchen gardens have also created fresh opportunities for the young women. “Girls who have passed Class Ten have something to do and are not forced to get married. They are also actively involved in community work, advocating the cause for clean drinking water and sanitation,” revealed one young member of the Madanpur Jyoti Yuvati club.
Better nutrition, better living – that’s the gift this young girls’ brigade in Deoghar is giving to the community.

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