Stories from the Field – Missing Exams for…

By: Kashay Sanders

I am doing research for VOICE that requires me to go to VOICE-schools in Hyderabad, and better understand how the program may have improved their academic performance. This includes interviewing girls, as well as looking at their attendance and grade records for the past few years. Yesterday, I visited a school where one girl positively RADIATED. She was clearly bright and boldly spoke English. She remembered who I was and my name (which is by no means easy) from my last visit.  When asked what subject she was not confident in, she said, “No subject.” Alright!

After the interview we looked at her records and saw a big, red absent where her marks for the big quarterly exam should be. This didn’t add up.

In Indian schools, there are three big exams in a year: the quarterly (around September), the half-yearly (around January) and the annual (around March/April). Teachers and students look frenzied during exam time—teachers are nervous about their students’ performance and how it will reflect on them; children sit in class, trying to memorize material, muttering to themselves incessantly. Exams-time is like a force-field around Indian schools—no one from the outside (i.e. me) is allowed in and no one, from the inside is allowed out (figuratively, of course).

Given this, we were surprised that such an ambitious girl had missed her exams. “What happened?” I asked the teacher who was assisting us.

“Oh. She got her period for the first time on that day, and had to go home.”

My friend, who was helping me, and I were flabbergasted. “Because of her period…? Will she get to make it up?”

Seeing our reactions, the teacher jumped, “Well, I-I want her to…but I am not sure…they will allow her. But they probably will. She is a good student.”

“But…so for that…,” We protested somewhat. “So she’ll get a zero?”

The teacher explained that, given the girl is a good student, she will likely be OK. She then went on to tell us that, after that day, the girl was missing from school for about 15 days, as it was a tradition to do so in her community after the first period.

Well then.

My friend and I sat in silence, struggling with the implications of the event. This is a classic struggle for the girls and women I have encountered here—how does one forward themselves in a way that will guarantee intellectual and economic independence while also maintaining and respecting the beliefs and traditions of their home communities? It isn’t VOICE’s place to tell girls what they should and should not do in this regard, but to provide girls with the tools to be able to understand the forces at play in their lives and measure their own agency to play with, and alter those forces.

For the short term, I breathed a sigh of relief that this girl has enough rapport with her teachers and management that the zero grade will, likely, not count against her.

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