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Mamta Lohar makes the short walk home from school during lunch break to visit her father, Sohan, recently back from a stay in Mumbai—14 hours away by bus. He’s been gone a long time, and only recently returned home to Kalthana, in rural Rajasthan. The small village isn’t exactly an economic boomtown, so fathers often move to the city to find work.
Sohan is the man of the house, but it’s Mamta teaching him lessons that will keep his family healthy.
Mamta is only 10, but she walks through the gate to her home as if she were royalty surveying her kingdom, poised and self-possessed. At just four feet tall, her presence commands the Lohar household.
Little brother, Krish, is seven, and two classes behind her, in Grade 2. They both attend Kalthana Primary School, built by WE. Earlier, he’d made failed attempts to join Mamta and her friends laughing loudly in the schoolyard. Already, both siblings have more formal education than their mother, Durga, who never went to school. In the family’s dusty front yard, Durga keeps her face veiled from the sun while she heats water for laundry over a fire. Above her, a string of children’s clothes hangs like garland, smelling of campfire.
Mamta’s father is determined to carve out a better path for his daughter than the one he and his wife have tread. Sohan is the first to admit it’s been “tough.” He’s only home in the middle of the day because he’s recently out of work. He wants to see Mamta graduate from college and eclipse his own Grade 12 education.
“From where I left off, she will continue,” Sohan says through a translator.
In the rural communities that dot Rajasthan’s countryside, girls are often perceived as a family burden, whereas boys stay in the family, bringing wives and dowries and children who bear the same surname. Sending daughters to school can seem frivolous when there is work to be done, goats to be watered and young children to be tended to at home. Eventually, girls are married off, sent with land or livestock to contribute to her in-laws.
Indian hospitals are barred from revealing the sex of unborn babies at ultrasound appointments, lest the black-and-white image reveal disappointment and parents take matters into their own hands. Boys are an asset; girls are a liability.
Except Mamta. She is her father’s daughter and her dreams are the family’s goals. Not everyone lives by the gender stereotype; Sohan defies it, and so Mamta will receive every opportunity he can afford her. What Sohan feels instinctively will surely prove true—that Mamta’s success is what’s best for the family.
An additional year of primary school can increase earning potential for girls by 10 to 20 per cent when they reach adulthood, according to UNICEF. Every year of high school can increase eventual income by 15 to 25 per cent. Girls’ education can break the cycle of poverty; a daughter will contribute to her own family, as well as her future one, lifting up two households and multiple generations.
Mamta wants to be a doctor, a fact that draws a closed-lip smile from Sohan—the only time he breaks an otherwise straight-faced composure.
“I want to give injections,” says Mamta, “so there will be no diseases.”
In fact, she’s already dispensing medical advice. A while back, Mamta returned home from school with an instruction for Sohan: they must boil the family’s drinking water.
In Rajasthan’s desert climate, groundwater wells are the primary source of water for cooking, bathing and consumption. Agricultural run-off and human and animal waste can contaminate wells that lack parapets—walls that surround a well’s opening—leading to diarrhea, dysentery, jaundice and typhoid, all of which are common here. Though deadly, the germs are tiny, invisible to the naked eye. Mamta learned about waterborne illnesses and micro-bacteria at a WE Villages health education program at Kalthana Primary School, where, among other lessons, they told her to boil the water before using it.
“My daughter knew something that no one else in the community was doing,” Sohan boasts, marvelling at the role reversal. “I thought, ‘my daughter taught me a lesson,’” referring to the pathogen-killing water-boiling homework she assigned him. Though he admits it was not the first time he’d been told.
Long before Mamta’s intervention, Sohan visited a doctor in Mumbai with a stomachache. The doctor advised him to boil his drinking water; Sohan thought it seemed like an odd and inconvenient suggestion, so he didn’t. But he acted immediately on the same advice from his child. That is the precocious power of Mamta, and a daughter’s unlikely influence over her father.
The Lohars were the first in their village to boil water. Now they do so twice daily, to noticeable health improvements.
We sit on the family’s spacious veranda, the cool stone floor is a relief from the midday sun. Rajasthani marble is under us in large white tiles, some streaked green and grey and others black. The Lohars have the only house on the street with a concrete foundation and multiple rooms, remnants of wealth from Sohan’s former job as a jeweller in Mumbai. The family has since fallen on “hard times,” as he calls it.
He’s looking into job prospects—perhaps manual labour at a nearby construction site. In the meantime, he’s at home with his daughter as she grows older and wiser by the day. Even now, without work, Sohan insists his daughter stay in school.
Of all the marble squares to choose from, Mamta picks the one next to Sohan, and he often looks down at her before speaking. He will find other work, “God willing,” he says, and he will fulfill Mamta’s dream.
“Mein jo bhi kar sakunga karunga,” he says. “Whatever I can do, I will do.”
Katie Hewitt is a journalist and Associate Director at WE. She loves to travel, but while she’s home in Toronto, a good story is the best trip.