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The Daughters of Bihar

Even though original journalism on the Internet was not a category when the jury convened to decide the winners of the United Nations Population Fund ( and Population First's Laadli Media Awards for Gender Sensitivity, the jury was -- Dr A L Sharda, programme director, Population First ( told guests at the awards ceremony at the Tata Theatre in Mumbai on December 19 -- so impressed with the following feature that they instituted a special award.

In its citation, the UNFPA-Laadli Media Awards noted: The series of news features and photographs titled 'Daughters of Bihar' by Archana Masih of are a novel and interesting way of highlighting the struggles that girls in rural India have to face. And yet at the end of reading her profiles, one is filled with hope for the girl child.

At the awards ceremony, Masih -- who won the Chevening Journalism Fellowship, UK, in 2000 -- thanked the organisers and jury for recognising the story and accepted the UNFPA-Laadli Media Special Award for 'All those wonderful girls in Bihar who have to overcome tremendous odds and societal stereotypes just to be able to go to school.'

April 19, 2007
Text and Photographs: Archana Masih

The little girls had fought a battle of their own. Fighting for something many children take for granted -- the chance to go to school.

Born into poor families where generations before them had never been to school, these girls had lied, stolen and fought against the tyranny of an unlettered tradition to make their way to school.

They belonged to the poorest of the poor, the lowest of India's wretched caste system and came from the country's poorest and most illiterate state -- Bihar.

A state reeling under a baggage of hopelessness and ridicule borne out of misrule, Bihar is turning a corner, at least it is trying to. In January, it launched a programme to bring over 23 lakh (2.3 million) out-of-school children to educational institutions. And by organising a festival to celebrate these girls, it couldn't have taken a nobler initiative.

Eighty per cent of the girls at the festival had not used a toilet. They had not seen buffet tables laden with a variety of food that their minders suspected would give them upset tummies due to overeating.

For many among the 2,200 girls assembled at the historic Gandhi Maidan in Patna -- the ground where Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders of the freedom movement gave rallying calls against the British Raj -- the two-day festival provided experiences they had never had before.

"I've never travelled this far, when I got into the bus to come here, on the way I saw a train. I was seeing a train for the first time!" exclaimed Mintu Kumari, 11, who only began going to the Kasturba Gandhi Vidyalaya, a residential school for poor Dalit girls, a year ago.

Image: Dhanvarti and Prabha, schoolgirls from Bihar, before their performance at the festival. 2,200 underprivileged girls participated in the event.

Also see: A day in the life of a village school in Bihar

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