Remarkable school gives girls from the bottom of India’s caste system new hope

There’s a popular image of India today, of technology start-ups, call centres, film sets, even a space program – the emerging superpower in the business pages, the one the government splashes on its “Incredible !ndia” billboards.

But Poonam lives in another India, one she shares with three-quarters of her 1.2 billion fellow citizens.

In the official India, “untouchability” – the social exclusion of Dalits, the people at the bottom of the Hindu caste system – is an antiquated, illegal practice, countered with a plethora of affirmative-action schemes.

But in Poonam’s India, caste is still rigidly enforced, in her village and most other rural areas. It’s the India where a million girls have gone “missing” in the past six years because of sex-selective abortion, and where female work-force-participation rates are among the lowest in the world.

Poonam is a Dalit and a girl in India’s poorest state. The odds stacked against her are immense.

It is an article of faith here that urbanization and economic growth are bringing greater equality. For some people, in the biggest cities, this is indisputably true. But Poonam is the acid test: In her India, in her lifetime, will it ever be enough just to work hard and have a dream?

Read Stephanie Nolen’s full story in The Globe and Mail.

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