Prerna Residential School for Girls

sduncan post on January 28th, 2015
Posted in India Tags: , ,

By Louise Malhota

In India, a recent charitable act by one single nun is helping to change the lives of many of the countries’ most unfortunate girls who were born into the Dalit (or “untouchables”) caste.
The caste social system originated in an ancient Hindu text, called the Laws of Manu (circa 200 BC) that divided society into 4 main social classes or “castes”. These were Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and the lowest ranking caste, Shudras (servants). The Dalits were the lowest sub-category of the Shudras, and historically they were treated poorly, had little to no health care or education, and were segregated from other castes except for their “jobs” as cleaners of latrines and waste.

India’s new constitution in 1950 banned caste discrimination, and modernization and a more mobile society has greatly diminished the caste-based societal structure in today’s India. Intercaste marriages take place, and Dalits do hold prominent positions in modern society. However, caste discrimination is still quite rampant in more impoverished rural areas that make up 70% of India’s population . Furthermore, women are even more disadvantaged as they are seen as inferior to males. Rural Dalit girls are given few opportunities for education and are frequently married off young (typically around ages 12-14).

Into this societal context, a Catholic nun named Sudha Varghese opened the Prerna School for Girls in 2006 in the impoverished Mushahar (“rat eaters”, the lowest sub-sect of Dalits) area of Bihar state. Prerna means inspiration in Hindi. A second school opened in 2012. The schools now house 225 girls. The schools provide a safe place for education, as well as shelter, food, clothes and lessons in hygiene and health for the Dalit girls.
These remarkable schools exist mainly due to Sudha’s exemplary philanthropic efforts. Indeed, she gave up her family home and dedicated her life to her Prerna mission, becoming a nun as it was the sole occupation that allowed her to live as single independent woman alone in the community she wanted to help. She immersed herself in the Mushahar culture for 25 years, gaining their trust, and targeting the mothers with her educational message as they were key in allowing their girls to be educated versus married off young. Finally, in terms of funding, Sudha was instrumental in attaining the money to open, and continue operating, her schools.

According to the Globe and Mail’s Stephanie Nolen, the budget is “totally random. She asks government for the operating budget of the schools and they give it. Then sometimes random other money comes from European charities, from benefactors, now from Globe Readers. The make up of those donations is never consistent or predictable….and varies constantly” . Ms. Nolen goes on to explain that Sudha must harass the government for the funding, whom Sudha believes have a huge obligation to focus on Dalit education, particularly with India’s focus on becoming a global super-economy and eradicating any international perception as a culture with lingering gender and caste biases. For voluntary donations, initially Sudha singlehandedly sought out financial and labour support from her community, and her family (who helped despite their feelings her project was “crazy” ). Now, she just accepts gratefully for voluntary donations that come in due to the awareness and success of her venture, but they are not well organized or planned. And more troubling, a website opened by one of Sudha’s friends in the USA “” now seems to be run by someone “sketchy” and the money never goes to Sudha, according to Ms. Nolen.

The future of the Prerna Schools is bright but uncertain. Some students have now graduated and broken the cycle of poverty in their families. But with a funding base dependent on an unreliable state government, and unpredictable voluntary donations, Ms. Nolen believes it is crucial for SOMEONE to help Sudha develop a strategy for long-term success. Given what Sudha has accomplished virtually on her own, it is inspiring and hopeful to think that with more philanthropic strategy and support, not only will the lives of many Dalit girls be changed for the better, but also the societal beliefs about caste and gender discrimination may be eradicated for good.

Works cited

Phone interview with Ashok Malhotra, father-in-law, Sept 21/2014.

Nolen, Stephanie. Breaking Caste – Globe and Mail series, December 2, 2011 (“Remarkable School Gives Girls From The Bottom Of India’s Caste System New Hope”)

Email exchange with Stephanie Nolen, South America Bureau Chief, Globe and Mail, Sept 22/2014.

Nolen, Stephanie. Breaking Caste – Globe and Mail series, December 2, 2011 (“Remarkable School Gives Girls From The Bottom Of India’s Caste System New Hope”)

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