Ill-equipped private madrassas in Assam ignore child rights, junk formal education; girl students often end up as child brides

Syeda Ambia Zahan

The Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR), in a recent survey, has raised a red flag over blatant violation of child rights, and of the provisions of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009 in madrassas (schools of Islamic education). The survey comes at a time when the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development is working on a road map to introduce reforms in madrassas with the aim of bringing them at par with the national educational curriculum.

The ASCPCR survey was conducted by a three-member team of the commission led by its chairperson Sunita Changkakoti in private madrassas in two districts of Assam €" Dhubri and South Salmara. Both these districts, some 250 kilometres away from Guwahati, are dominated by the Bengali-origin Muslim community.

In a statement, it said, "The team of ASCPCR, during the visit to the madrassas, observed that although there are a number of madrassas for boys and girls, a majority of them are functioning with multiple violations of child rights. The team recorded multiple cases of corporal punishment, violations of the RTE Act, 2009 among the private madrassas."

The shocking reality inside the dark rooms of the madrassas led the commission to suggest shutting down of certain madrassas for gross violation of child rights and the RTE Act.

"There are gross violations of child rights, especially against girl children. The students are not provided with basic facilities. The banat madrassas (women madrassa) keep the girl children in confinement. The food is of bad quality. There is a huge chance of sexual violations and above all, children are deprived of formal education," Changkakoti said.

Dhubri is the least literate district in Assam with 58.34 percent literacy rate, as per the 2011 Census.

The mushrooming growth

The number of madrassas in India, which came into being with the advent of the Muslim rulers in the subcontinent, has gone up from some hundreds in the 1950s to over 8 lakh in the 2000s, according to various reports. Despite widespread suspicions that such institutions encourage a fundamentalist mentality, they have increased in number in Assam's char areas. (Char is the Assamese word for sandbar.)

Started as a means of ensuring education to the marginalised communities as a viable substitute for government schools, the private madrassas in Assam do not follow the standard formal education system. Away from any kind of government regulation, these non-registered schools house hundreds of children in tiny plots in unhygienic conditions and deprive them of formal education, consequently disconnecting them from the outer world, the commission observed.

"There are many reasons why a lot of madrassas have been coming up, although they cannot provide the kind of education needed for a person to secure a job. One of the reasons for this is the lack of government-run schools in char areas. The students have to travel 14-20 km to go to school. In most of the cases, they have to cross the river. As these madrassas provide free education and meals, the parents send their kids to these madrassas," said Illias Rahman Sarkar, a child rights activist from Dhubri district.

As per the records of the State Madrassa Education Board, the oldest in the country, there are 614 recognised madrassas in Assam. However, the number of privately-run madrassas are in thousands, said Sarkar.

"In my area in Golakganj, you would find four-five madrassas within the radius of five kilometres. Those who pass out from private madrassas have no option other than to become daily wage earners or maulanas (religious teacher). So they would establish more madrassas to survive on donations from the people of the society," he said.

Masud Zaman, an advocate, who is associated with the legal cell of the Assam State Jamiat Ulema-E-Hind in Dhubri district, however, felt that madrassas were acting as a place for the betterment of lives children in the char areas.

"Who goes to a madrassa? Obviously the poor people. The madrassas are providing free education and free meals. We cannot expect world-class facilities there because they are dependent on donations from society. At least these children are learning something in the schools. These schools prevent them from roaming around in an idle manner and committing crimes in that process," Zaman said.

However, he also agreed that these private madrassas have become businesses in these districts more than institutes of religious education.

In most cases, madrassas are set up in a small cluster with mud huts and tin roofs by the donation from local villagers.

Madrassas, a finishing school for child brides?

The 29-year-old Mariyam Bibi is a daily wage labourer in Guwahati. She belongs to Kamlakhar village of Golakganj revenue circle in Dhubri. Mariyam was 13 years old when she got married to one Marham Ali from Barpeta district.

"I was studying at a madrassa in my village. When I got enrolled I was eight years old. After five years of studying there, my mother said I had become ready for marriage," she said. Mariyam's 14-year-old daughter, a student of a banat madrassa also got married in the same district.

Dhubri is one among the 100 districts of India with a high prevalence of child marriage. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16 stated that the undivided Dhubri and South Salmara district records 31 percent prevalence of child marriage.

Changkakoti said that the girls' madrassas were acting as grooming centres for minor girls to get married by the age of 13-14 years.

"During our visit to banat madrassas, it was observed that girls are groomed in such a way where they do not have any interest in formal education, they do not have any dream to become anything in life other than maulana and they are interested in getting married as soon as finish their course. The madrassas are depriving the girls of experiencing the big world outside. A girl gets enrolled in the madrassas at the age of 7-8. They study a four-year course on religion. After that they are considered to be fit for getting married," the ASCPCR chairperson said.

Sarkar, who is actively working towards the eradication of child marriage from Dhubri, seconded this. He claimed that the banat madrassas are like the finishing schools for child brides in the district.

"The parents of a girl child want to get the girl married off by the age of 13-14. So they send their children to banat madrassas. As soon as the girl takes the religious education for two-three years, she is considered to be fit for marriage. So this is another reason why banat madrassas are so popular here," he said.

Changkakoti also expressed the high possibility of sexual violence in banat madrassas.

"In banat madrassas most of the teachers are male and they have all the access to the rooms of the girl students. The girls do not know anything outside their religious education. They do not have any sex education. The female teachers are also submissive. What happens inside would never be reported," she said.

She also said that not only girls, but there are high chances of a sexual offence against boys also.

"In many madrassas, there are boys from the age of five-six to 18-19 years. So there is every possibility of sexual harassment by elders. No one has sex education," the ASCPCR chairperson said.

Rahman recalled an incident where a minor girl was sexually assaulted and impregnated by a maulana in one of the banat madrassas of Raniganj area in Bilashipara sub-division of the district some seven months back. However, he chose not to speak much about it.

"If I speak against the madrassas I will face the rage of my people here," he said.

RTE goes the haywire

The Right to Education Act 2009, which makes formal education compulsory for children up to the age of 14, has been grossly violated by the private madrassas of the state.

Apart from religious education to students, the madrassas are not interested in linking themselves with the state board of education.

The commission in its report said, "The team recorded multiple cases of corporal punishment, violations of the RTE Act, 2009 among the private madrassas. It was also observed in the madrassas for girls that the girls were not allowed to interact with the outside world, keeping them confined inside the premises only. Even in madrassas for boys, some of them were found to be only providing religious education to the children, depriving them of the state education curriculum."

The team which visited some madrassas during the celebration of Teachers' Day on 5 September said the private madrassas although took part in the celebration did not know the significance of the day.

"The students would say they do not like to learn science and math. They would not want to become anything than a maulana. This is a very sorry state of affair. What would they become once they are out of it? Not everyone in these schools can become a maulana. These students will become frustrated in later part of life and contribute to the high rate of crime in such areas," said Changakakoti.

Though Section 17 of the Right to Education Act banned corporal punishment more than a decade back, the maulanas of the madrassas have defended the practice corporal punishment to discipline students.

Rakibul Islam Ahmed, who used to be a maulana in a banat madrassa named as Al-Madrassadul Islamia in Golakganj of Dhubri district, said, "There are some boys who are very naughty. In our house also our parents sometimes beat us for not studying. In madrassas, the situation is the same. We beat them at times to teach them."

Zaman also advocated this school of thought.

"There are instances where a student is beaten black and blue. But we also have to see the environment they are coming from. They are hard to be disciplined otherwise," he said.

According to Changkakoti, there is a world of difference between the environment inside a madrassa and outside it.

"Inside the madrassas, 7-8 years old girl children are made to wear three-four layers of clothes in pick summer. They share a room with 30-40 girls. If they are lucky they would get rooms which accommodate 10 girls. Outside the madrassas, girls are attending government schools, most are not wearing a hijab and dreams of becoming a teacher, doctor and whatnot. The madrassas in the name of providing education are violating the rights of individuals which is a deterrent to developing one's personality," she said.

Close, if you can't run

The ASCPCR emphasised that the government should intervene in the gross violation of rights in the madrassas. The district administrations of Dhubri and South Salmara have been asked to do close monitoring of these madrassas for protecting the rights of the children. The team recommended that other than religious education, all the children must be provided compulsory and free formal education.

"The girls should be provided with all the basic amenities. The children should also be provided clean and hygienic rooms with proper bedding, nutritious food, recreational facilities etc. Those institutions which cannot provide these facilities should be closed down by the Dist. Administration. Those Madrassas which have children in need of care and protection (homeless/orphan) should be registered under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015," the commission said in its report.

The team also observed that there is a need for more registered Child Care Institutions and Observation Homes for Dhubri and South Salmara districts.

According to an NSSO study, Muslims are the poorest religious group in India with an average per capita expenditure of just Rs 32.66 in a day. The study titled Employment and Unemployment Situation Among Major Religious Groups in India said that at all-India level, the average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of a Sikh household was Rs 1,659 while that for a Muslim household was Rs 980 in 2009-10.

The private madrassas are one of the key reasons for such a low rate of income among the Muslim community as hardly anyone graduating from these ill-equipped institutes will have a chance to survive in today's competitive job markets.

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