Inside a dimly-lit classroom in Uttar Pradesh's Hardoi, with its walls decorated with drawings and paintings made by children, Seema Yadav, 36, is teaching a group of 25 girls who are sitting in a circle in one corner. These are girls who were either never enrolled in school or had to drop out due to various reasons. They are now way behind academically compared to other students of their age.
At the Udaan innovatory bridge school of Care India, almost 125 km away from state capital Lucknow, such girls of 10 to 16 years age are taught for 11 months so they could catch up.
Every year, nearly 100 girls cover the syllabus of six years within 11 months. These girls then appear for the 5th Grade annual examination, which ensures their admission in any formal school in the state.
Almost 1,800 girls have been taught in this preparatory school set up by the Care India project in collaboration with Sarvodaya Ashram in 1999.
High dropout rate among girls is a serious concern in India. As per the 2017 Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER), once the eight years of elementary schooling are completed, girls begin to abandon schools in far greater numbers than boys.
According to the report, while at the primary level, 5.7 per cent girls are not enrolled in schools compared to 4.7 per cent boys, the enrolment gap widens steadily as they grow. At the secondary level, by the time they turn 18, over 32 per cent girls are not enrolled in schools compared to 28 per cent boys.
The survey suggests that the predominant reason for girls dropping out is family constraints. The study also reveals that over 70 per cent out-of-school youth have mothers who have never been to school.
Seema, a resident of Mirzapur district, was just 17 when she first started teaching here to help support her own education. She has been now associated with this residential school for the past 18 years.
Almost every girl in this school has a tragic tale to share: Of domestic violence, poverty, untouchability, discrimination and marginalisation which is prevalent in most districts of Uttar Pradesh. Seema is no exception.
As a child, she helplessly witnessed the horror of domestic violence for years. She would cower in a corner of her room and watch her jobless father go on a rampage in the house and take out his frustration on her mother.
She struggled to get away from that environment and eventually eloped with a man of another caste. However, her struggles were magnified when her husband, Hariram Singh, died of cancer a few years after the couple were married in a Sitarampur court.
"My father told me to forget everything and pretend as if I had never married. I told him I would marry again only when he gave me assurance that no domestic violence would happen. He gave me no answer," she said.
"Some incidents you experience as a child leave you shattered throughout your life. I saw terrible things happening at my home that shattered my spirit," Seema said.
When she was a child, there was pressure on her to quit her education and take up odd jobs, but she toiled hard, often trapped between discrimination and poverty. Her resolve eventually prevailed over adversity and she finally managed to graduate and become one of the handful of girls from her village to do so.
Seema went on to complete her post-graduation, finished her B.Ed. and also cleared the eligibility examination that qualified her to teach in government schools.
Now she teaches mathematics and life skills to girls who face similar adversities and tries to change their fate just education changed hers.
According to Sangita 14, and Reetu,16, two students studying at Udaan school, "Seema didi is an inspiration."
"When we were admitted in this school some months ago, we knew nothing. We feared to hold a pen; we could not read, write or speak properly for we lacked motivation and confidence. We are reading story books now, do ganit (mathematics), and enjoy doing extra-curriculum activities," said Reetu, who has seen her share of domestic violence, especially when her father gets drunk.
She wants to become a police officer and prevent drunkards from committing crimes in her village.
According to the programme coordinator of the school, Urmila Srivastava, the Udaan project has inspired the entire state education system in Uttar Pradesh.
"The module of preparatory education has now been adopted by almost all preparatory schools across Uttar Pradesh which shows how influential our curriculum has been," she said.
"We don't just teach girls here, we educate them about the processes that are essential for their life such as leadership skill, behaviour and personal hygiene. To bring reforms in the predominant casteist and illiteracy-riven state with child marriage issues, only focused education can bring long-term social changes," added Vandana Mishra, the programme manager.
In a survey conducted by a team of Udaan teachers, 460 out of the 1,567 girls who graduated from this school were found still unmarried, suggesting that education helped them to negotiate their marriage. The survey also found that those girls were able to support themselves and helped with the education of their younger siblings as well.
"Most of the girls, after spending 11 months in this school, inspire their siblings at home to develop interest in studies and learn to maintain personal hygiene," Vandana added.
However, the major problem the girl-students face is overall poverty in their homes and the lack of resources to continue their studies once they clear the fifth-class examination.
In 2017, Seema adopted a nine-year-old boy, Anirudh, from a relative. She says the satisfaction of nurturing children from marginalised backgrounds gives her more comfort than she can express in words.
"I see myself in their eyes. I relate my struggle with their life. I often cry with them... This inspires me to make more efforts to change their lives," she says and breaks down.