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Last Updated: Friday, 16 December 2005, 11:35 GMT
Role model overcoming hardships
By Debabani Majumdar
BBC News

Guriya Khatoon at the BBC office in London
Guriya completed five years of study in nine months
Thirteen-year-old Guriya Khatoon has been enjoying her first trip abroad.

Two years ago, she could not read or write. This week she addressed a United Nations children's conference in London where she was hailed as a model in self-improvement.

The unassuming, giggling teenager is from one of India's poorest states, Bihar.

The UN's children's fund (Unicef) chose her to represent the socially excluded children of India - those who have been deprived because of poverty and their social class - at the launch of Unicef's report on The State of the World's Children 2006.


Guriya is one of six children from a poor Muslim family in the Karmadi village in Gaya district of Bihar state. She has seen dire poverty.

Guriya at her village, Karmadi, in Bihar
Guriya had been a child labourer since she was nine-years old

Her father, Mohammad Salim Ansari, is an unskilled labourer, working across the country in Mumbai (Bombay). Her mother, Rehana Khatoon, is a farm labourer in the village.

When Guriya turned nine, she started working as a labourer on the farm with her mother. Her younger sister took over Guriya's role of looking after the home and the other children.

Guriya says she had always wanted to study but she faced stiff opposition from her family.

"My mother said we are Muslims and in our community girls are kept in purdah so how dare I speak of studying and moreover we could not afford it... we are too poor."

But Guriya's insistence paid off and she was sent to a local Islamic school (madrassa) for four hours every day. But she had to promise her mother that she would do all the household chores after school.

But after only a few months her parents found they could no longer afford the school fees.

After returning to work as a child labourer, Guriya got her chance to study when volunteers from a women's development programme, Mahila Samakhya Samiti, visited the village to speak about free education.

Guriya convinced her mother to let her go to the organisation's informal residential school for nine months in September 2003.

Long walk to school

At the school she met other girls from similar backgrounds.

Guriya on her way to school in Bihar
Guriya walks eight km everyday to her school

In nine months she completed five years worth of studies and learned to read, write, as well as karate, yoga, painting, embroidery and other skills.

After completing the course she joined a regular government school in the next village and is now in seventh standard.

Seeing Guriya's transformation, four of her friends from the village were also enrolled in school and now three of her sisters and a few cousins have started their education.

Guriya is prepared to put up with hardship.

"I walk eight kilometres to school every day with my friends and then in the afternoon we all sit in our courtyard and I help others with their school work," she says.

Anupam Srivastava is the communications officer for Unicef in Bihar and says Guriya's spirit set her apart.

"We were looking for someone who can represent socially excluded children in India. Guriya has individual strength by which she has overcome her circumstances but what makes her special is that she is committed to helping other children in her village study and learn"


Guriya is prepared to be tough with adults.

Guriya practicing karate in school
Guriya wants to be a karate teacher

"My friend was being married off, so I told her father that if you get her married before she is 18, the police will come and get you for breaking the law, so do you want to go to jail? I told my parents the same thing," she laughs.

Today Guriya dreams of being a karate teacher.

"I want to teach karate, I am teaching the girls in my school as well. You need to learn to protect yourself or else you will be always scared. I also want to go to college eventually but I do not plan that much for the future."

During her first time in London she was not nervous, but excited about the prospect of addressing a huge audience.

"I told the governments and especially the parents that they should send their children to school.

"I told children that even if you are faced with millions of troubles and poverty there is no reason to be scared as you have to be brave and it feels nice at the end."

With an enthusiastic 'yes' she finished her interview, perhaps the only word in English she picked up for her trip to London.

Unicef and the Bihar government have promised to help her continue her studies.

So it seems Guriya may actually realise her dream of teaching karate and going to college.

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