Tribal communities in Odisha report a high percentage of dropouts from schools and a near 50 per cent prevalence of underage marriage for girls
For 14-year-old Tapoi Malik, going to school is a rare privilege. Born to parents who never had any schooling, Tapoi is the youngest of three children. Her elder siblings, a brother and a sister, both dropped out before finishing high school. Tribal communities in Odisha report a high percentage of dropouts from schools and a near 50 per cent prevalence of underage marriage for girls.
“My brother stopped going to school as he has to help my father in the fields, and my sister dropped out, got married and has gone to work in the city,” said Tapoi. “But I love studying and I want to continue,” she said. A student of grade 9 in Daspalla Upper Primary School, a residential school for children from tribal and backward communities in Nayagarh district of Odisha, Tapoi loves Mathematics, Science and Odia.
In late March as schools closed down and children were sent home, Tapoi initially welcomed the break. “I thought we would go back to school after a month. But when the closure continued, I was very sad. I really missed my friends, my lessons and my teachers. The one thing I like the most is studying, but with no one to help me with my lessons at home, I was not able to learn new topics.”
Nevertheless, Tapoi continued revising the coursework that had already been covered in school. “I kept going over what I had already learnt. It was very important for me to spend a few hours with my books and notebooks,” she said.
Tapoi was overjoyed when she got a message from a neighbor that a teacher would be visiting her village to teach children who were enrolled in the tribal school.
The teacher’s visits and lessons were made possible by a unique initiative of the ST and SC Department of the Government of Odisha through the Alternate Mentorship and Learning Programme (ALMP) designed in collaboration with UNICEF and launched during the pandemic to bring schools to the doorstep of disadvantaged children.
“Since Sir started visiting my village, I haven’t missed a single class. I could ask him questions and also revise difficult topics with his help,” said Tapoi.
Tapoi wants to join the police force when she grows up, but for now her only dream is to continue her studies, an aspiration she knows often remains unfulfilled, especially among girls in her community.
She works hard to ensure she has enough time for her classes and studies. “I wake up at 4 a.m. everyday. I help my mother with cooking, cleaning and household work. Once I finish my chores, I sit down to study,” she said.
Tapoi has around 13 students in her village class. Along with the curriculum the students are also taught about staying healthy with nutritious food and physical exercise, staying safe online and hygiene behaviours. Implemented across all 30 districts of Odisha, the ALMP pressed into service around 4,700 teachers to reach out to 0.3 million school going children from Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste communities.
A recently concluded assessment of the programme has shown positive learning outcomes for children. Nearly all students (96 per cent) from Class 10 and 12 said that the classes/sessions have helped them continue with studies in a self-regulatory manner. Students also said the sessions helped to establish a good rapport with these teachers and increased their confidence levels.
Parents, too, have found the initiative useful for their children and expressed confidence that their children will be able to easily reintegrate with regular classes once schools reopen. The assessment found that a majority of teachers were clear about the modality and objectives of the initiative though several found the lack of internet connectivity and access to a smart phone a major challenge as teaching resources and lesson plans are shared through WhatsApp.
Teacher Dwiti Chandra Sahoo from Rayagada has been given the task of teaching children in five villages in his district. “Initially not every child would turn up for the classes. I would then go to their homes to fetch them. We followed a strict safety protocol. All children would have to wear a face cover and also wash their hands with soap and water before the start of the class.”
Dwiti carries carry a soap, drawing sheets and colours along with printed learning resources for the children he teaches. “All these children are first generation learners. Among the grownups in the villages, almost all are uneducated. But the enthusiasm among children as well as parents is very high,” he said.
UNICEF is collaborating with the government to put together a communication plan for students, parents and community members to ensure all children go back to school once schools reopen.
“It is very crucial to ensure children continue to learn even as the schools are closed. The ALMP initiative is an innovative move by the government to reach the most marginalized and vulnerable tribal children of Odisha. We are now working on the next steps to make the ALMP initiative stronger and thus support parents and children resume schooling when schools resume classes.”
Monika Nielsen, Chief of Field Office, UNICEF, Odisha