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Shabnam Parveen teaches a student at her tailoring unit | Photograph by Shrey Gupta

Girl power in Bihar the Project Lehar way

Kaveree Bamzai , Patna

Published: Feb. 28, 2019
Updated: Jan. 29, 2020

Shila Kumari comes out of her tiny hut on the bank of the Punpun river, her eyes blinking in the mid-morning sunlight. Her hair is oiled, her purple shawl darned but clean, her smile brighter than her red salwar kameez. At 20, she still has the mien of a much younger girl, and she wears her responsibilities lightly. Shila looks after the home, cooking and cleaning from 5 am every day. Ten am sees her trekking to the farm to put together bales of paddy. For every 50 bales, she earns five as payment.

Back home at 5 pm, she cooks for the evening, then studies by candlelight or, if she is lucky, stolen electricity. Having dropped out of school in Class 4, it’s been a struggle for Shila to learn the basics all over again but thanks to the Aga Khan Foundation’s programme, Project Lehar, she’s been able to take the Class 10 National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) exam. 

It’s not been easy. She’s failed twice in Indian Culture, each time losing out by a mark, but this time she is determined to overcome everything and clear every hurdle. Then she hopes to take the Class 12 exam because, as she says, “to achieve something I need to have something to show”.

Since Project Lehar reached out to her in 2015, Shila finds herself aspiring to be an achiever. She hopes she can escape the seemingly endless cycle of poverty in which she has lived in Adpa, an outlying suburb of Patna. 

Shila Jymaru, third from left, has passed Class 10 and wants to study further | Photograph by Shrey Gupta

Project Lehar covers the two urban blocks of Phulwarisharief and Danapur in Patna. It came out of a small initiative with a group of 500 adolescent girls in Phulwarisharief in 2013-14 when the Aga Khan Foundation was working in the area on school improvement, early child development and self-help group empowerment. It found that adolescent girls were being overlooked and needed a specific programme of their own.

In Bihar, the situation of adolescent girls is particularly dire. As many as 68.2 percent of girls in the state are married off before the age of 18. Only 39 percent of unmarried women receive any information about family planning and a mere 28 percent have the most basic knowledge about sexually transmitted infections. Domestic violence faced by women is 43.2 percent in Bihar, much higher than the national average of 28.8 percent.

Shila says the change in her life isn’t just due to the school run by the Aga Khan Foundation which she attended, after enormous persuasion by community teachers from Project Lehar and despite opposition from her father. It’s the life skills she was taught as well — and she uses the specific phrase. She learned to stand up for herself, to choose her own path, to take decisions for herself.

Her father, who drinks through his farm labourer wages, had fixed her wedding, paying `1.5 lakh as dowry to a man Shila discovered was a drunk. She refused to go through with the wedding, leaving her family with the liability of `1.5 lakh which the would-be groom refuses to part with now. But she’s paid back Rs 1 lakh, and she has another `50,000 to go.

Shila runs an Early Childhood Development (ECD) centre in her village, teaching pre-primary children, Monday to Friday, for three hours a day. On Saturdays she teaches for one hour, sometimes giving the students tests, and then plays with the children for the remaining two hours. Her classes include instruction in literacy and numeracy.

The loan balance worries Shila enough to momentarily make her stop talking. Her cheerful demeanour cracks and she suddenly starts crying silently, and rushes inside. So many things weigh on her — her exam, the loan she has to repay, her younger sister’s lack of drive, her father’s alcoholism. But she still has hope and, more important, ambition.
Girls bond with one another at the community centre in Phulwarisharief | Photograph by Shrey Gupta

Stepping Out: This narrative of transformation, slow, subtle, sustained, is repeated. The two blocks of Phulwarisharief and Danapur are primarily urban slum settlements with a population of 273,000, of which 57 percent are Muslims and Other Backward Castes. The blocks have gradually emerged as migration hubs due to the influx of large numbers of rural migrants into Patna in search of better job opportunities — as wage labourers or in activities like truck or auto-rickshaw driving, auto repairs, electrical repairs, small trading and masonry, and waste collection and sorting. The majority of women do not work and those that do are mostly engaged in occupations like beedi rolling, bangle and incense making, vending of old clothes, and as domestic workers in adjoining neighbourhoods. The typical monthly household income averages just `3,900.

An in-depth appraisal undertaken by the Aga Khan Foundation in 2007 found high poverty rates, poor performance across several socio-economic indicators and lack of access to basic services among residents of these two contiguous blocks.

Lalu Nagar in Danapur where the AKF has improved sanitation facilities | Photograph by Shrey Gupta

Professor Razi Ahmed, secretary, Gandhi Sangrahalaya, Patna, blames it on a corrupt political system which uses these communities as vote banks and an uncaring bureaucracy that keeps them unaware of the schemes available for their progress. From girl after girl, you hear the same argument: we failed in one subject and didn’t know we could take the NIOS exam.

In fact, even officials of the Aga Khan Foundation didn’t know that Bihar runs an equivalent board, the Bihar Board of Open Schooling and Examination, which, says Project Lehar manager Kangkana Bordoloi, has given them even greater flexibility of subjects and timing. 

Reena Kumari is sitting quietly, observing a Home Science class in progress with a dozen Muslim girls in the Ishapur community centre, in another part of Phulwarisharief. Most of the girls, 18-year-olds, are preparing for their Class 10 exam after years of having their studies interrupted because of one reason or another.

In the case of Sajda Parveen it was when her family moved to this area, increasing the distance to her school. For Rosy Parveen, it was because she failed in maths and didn’t know how to overcome that. Urdu journalist Anwarul Hoda, who heads a local organisation, says the lack of community leadership has ensured that most young women are unable to break out of the cycle of poverty and ignorance. “There are hardly any schools in these two areas, and even if they are, they are for the rich,” he adds.

Reena’s mother works as a labourer, working on construction sites. The job is hard, fickle, demanding. On a good day she can earn `250, on a bad day nothing at all. But she is conscious that she has to feed her family, whatever it takes — Reena’s father has polio and is unable to work. Reena is the first in her family to have ever attempted to study. Her mother supports her, she says, but cannot afford her studies so she pays her way through by teaching younger children.

But the smile on her face is fixed, flickering a little only when she speaks about how hard her mother works for the family. Reena has two brothers, one of whom is married, and three sisters, all of whom are married. One brother works in a medical shop and the other in a garage, repairing vehicles. In 2008, her sister’s marriage forced Reena to quit formal schooling while she was in Class 8 and take over the household responsibilities. For eight years she spent her days doing housework and remaining inside her home, only going out for marriages or special family events. Her home was her life.

Games and activities are used to explain menstrual hygiene | Photograph by Shrey Gupta

Then, in 2016, when the Project Lehar team began the mobilisation process for enrolling girls at the local centre, Reena enrolled. It was not an easy adjustment for her. She had little discipline or respect for her teachers and had trouble making friends with the other girls. Her teachers encouraged her to continue studying, and slowly she got closer to the girls and began enjoying
her studies.

A course that she was regular in was the life skills one. Reena learnt about health and hygiene, adopted a better diet after attending the nutrition classes, and her confidence grew. In February 2018, she began tuition classes for children at one of the Project Lehar centres. Reena charges the students `100 per month. Now she manages to pay for her studies and buy food occasionally when she is hungry or a drink when she is thirsty.

Janki, who is sitting alongside her, is also from Harijan Tola Isopur, Phulwarisharief. She was a regular school-goer and appeared for her Class 10 exam from Phulwari High School in the 2014-15 session. However, she could not clear mathematics and hence was failed in the exam. Her parents were unable to afford her taking the exam again.

That was the end of her ambition — until the Project Lehar team met her and counselled her to resume her studies. She took her Class 10 exam again in April 2018, but failed in Home Science this time. Determined to succeed, she waited for her turn, re-applied for that subject and appeared in July 2018. She got through. Right now, she is doing Intermediate in one of Patna’s prestigious colleges — J.D. Women’s College. Janki plans to prepare for the railways exam. 

Joining the Workforce: The Aga Khan Foundation teaches other skills too, from sewing to basic computer skills, from retail and hospitality to caregiving to farming. Shabnam Parveen, a soft-spoken, shy 18-year-old, again from Phulwarisharief, was not allowed to even step out of the house. The 16-year-old attended formal schooling till Class 3 but was forced to drop out due to her family’s financial problems. She continued studying at home till Class 8.

Yet, she always dreamed of studying and making something of her life. Her father is a welder and her brother helps her father with the work, which is seasonal in nature and does not provide much financial security to the family. Shabnam was enrolled in a girls’ education programme run by the Foundation as part of its Project for Enhancing the Quality of Education in Bihar that ran between 2012 and 2015; however, she joined just four months prior to the project’s closure and could not complete the course.

For a year, Shabnam stitched clothes for the community and earned a small income. Then she came to know about Project Lehar and began attending scholastic classes along with classes on life skills. Although she was unable to pass the Class 10 examination, she has used what she learned in the life skills courses to pursue another dream. “I was heartbroken when I learnt that I hadn’t passed my Class 10 exam, I lost all hope and confidence, because I always had the desire to learn and do something more with my life,” Shabnam says.

Through the life skills courses, she gained the confidence to open a centre and share her stitching knowledge with other girls. Attending meetings and using her past experience from a boutique she was formally employed at, Shabnam opened the centre on her own. Now, when the life skills coordinator, Sajida Tabassum, who spent many hours convincing her parents to let Shabnam step out, sees her telling a student how to stitch the seam of a salwar or how to get the cut of a blouse right, she feels more than a sense of satisfaction.

It is pride as well, and as Shabnam discusses why she needs Rs 7,500 to buy a new sewing machine, you can see the emerging businesswoman in her. She charges Rs 100 for a salwar kameez and can make upto three a day. In addition, she runs the sewing centre between two and four every afternoon, teaching upto 10 women, whose custom she solicited by going door to door in the neighbourhood. 

“I can make a salwar kameez, blouse, jumper, abaya, sharara, even a lehenga choli,” says Shabnam proudly. “Google has made my life much easier,” she adds. She asks a woman in the class to get up and model the abaya she’s wearing. Akin to a long coat with pockets, it is Shabnam’s own design. “I put pockets in everything I make,” she says, “from my salwars to shararas.” So what’s trending right now: palazzos and straight pants. “Once I get my new machine, I will be able to teach better and sew better as well,” she says. Next month, she has promised herself.

Kangkana Bordoloi, centre, flanked by AKF teachers Naseem Ahmend and Famida Naaz and thier students at the Ishapur community centre | Photograph by Shrey Gupta

For Bordoloi, the magic is in the transformation of the girls. Each girl is a milestone in the change they would like to see across Project Lehar, which aims to increase the capacity of adolescent girls to manage their health and well-being; enhance scholastic abilities of adolescent girls; and improve access to more productive, remunerative employment opportunities.

With funding of Rs 3.34 crore for 2015 to 2018, Project Lehar was run in conjunction with the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF). The UN funding has ended now and the Aga Khan Foundation has spent Rs 22 lakh on it this year.

Bordoloi has been here since almost the beginning of Project Lehar, having come in from Guwahati, and not a day goes by when she isn’t overcome by tears. Even a basic necessity like a community space where young women can meet and discuss their lives with one another, find in each other their mirror, is something that is a luxury here.

It has been a struggle for Bordoloi too, but the 30-year-old postgraduate in child rights from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences feels alive every minute of her working day. As she says, “Project Lehar has been a life-changing experience for me. It teaches you to be patient and take things one at a time. It appreciates the heterogeneity of adolescent girls and seeks to evolve according to their aspirations, building learning and capacity for learning.”


  • Dr A K Raman

    Dr A K Raman - April 28, 2019, 6:34 p.m.

    Great Initiative of AKF, Congratulations!