By Roli Srivastava
BEED, India, July 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Constable Meena Ghodke may be in the bottom rank of her local police force but it is the highest anyone has climbed in her village - man or woman - and she could not be prouder.
Not for Ghodke the usual wrench from school to farm work, early marriage and motherhood. Part of a wave of young village women who want more from life, the 26-year-old had plans.
"I didn't want to work as a farm labour or marry. I spent half my school days toiling on the farm, but the yield was always poor. I never felt rewarded," said Ghodke.
She spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation from her home in Beed, western India, where she carefully pinned on her name tag, buckled her belt and tied her hair in a tight bun before leaving for the local station where she works as a constable.
"When I got selected, the villagers felicitated me," she said with a smile.
Ghodke has now worked nearly four years as a constable and is currently in Beed's anti-human trafficking unit.
Beed lies in Maharashtra's parched Marathwada region where years of drought have ravaged crops, forcing farmers to migrate and fuelling a demand for brides to work alongside their men so the family earns more.
"My elder sister got married when she was in seventh grade (aged 14). There were five other girls with me in school who, too, dropped out to get married and work as farm labour. I didn't want that for myself," Ghodke said.
So when Ghodke spotted a police recruitment ad in a local paper, her escape plan hatched. At the time, she was battling family pressure to wed but pleaded with her father to allow her to sit the test, then fix her a marriage if she failed.
Women make up a little over 7% of the total police force in India, most in the constabulary, government data shows.
Maharashtra began setting aside one in three police posts for women more than two decades ago, and today it employs nearly 20% of the overall 100,000 women constables across India, showing the highest ratio of any state.
In Beed, more than 3,500 women have applied for the 100 or so police jobs advertised from 2014 to 2018, police data shows.
Of a batch of 630 women constables trained at a police training centre in Maharashtra's Solapur district, most were from villages, officials said.
Desperation drove them on.
"There is no water, no jobs there," said Kavita Nerkar, who heads the Solapur training centre.
"You get a job after 12th grade (aged 18) and you get a police uniform. That is aspirational for many. Their parents get better respect in the villages. That matters a lot. I see parents motivating them now to join the force," Nerkar said.
Nerkar's counterpart at the all-women police training centre in Khandala, a hill town in Maharashtra, said the "passion and pride" that comes with a uniform drew girls to the force.
"When I go to villages, a lot of young girls ask me about what they should do to join the force," said Smita Patil, a superintendent and principal of the Khandala training centre.
'BRIDE FOR LABOUR'
It's a big change from a life of debt bondage on sugarcane farms, where workers typically sign up for six months' labour, taking the money in advance, then get trapped in repayments and can end up exploited and unable to break free.
This migration pattern has stoked child marriage numbers as employers prefer to hire couples for sugarcane cutting, which requires two people to work in sync - one cutting the crop, the other tying up stalks - and also offer better wages.
Couples earn up to 100,000 rupees ($1,448) for six months, so parents marry off daughters to farmers seeking a bride for labour, said Prakash Thakur, head of Dhekanmoha village in Beed.
Nearly half of local women in Beed marry before 18, national family health survey data shows, double the national average.
"But at Dhekanmoha and the adjoining Jujgavan villages, five women have joined the police in the last four years. This was a first," Thakur said.
Jobs with the police offer a starting salary of about 18,000 rupees ($261.65) a month and saved parents the custom of saving up to pay a groom's family to take their daughter in marriage.
"The system of dowry is prevalent in these parts, but parents of women who joined the police did not have to give any money," village head Thakur said.
NEW WAVE OF WOMEN
Meeran Borwankar - who retired from the elite Indian Police Service (IPS) in 2017 - recalled a recruitment drive for constables she ran in 1996 as a local superintendent.
"Not a single girl qualified. They were thin and weak," she said, then recounted a similar and more recent recruitment drive when "girls came in dozens. They were physically fit, agile and motivated...they were so overjoyed when they became constables."
To become a constable, applicants must have finished 12th grade, undergo a physical fitness test and sit a written test spanning general knowledge, mathematics and science.
Sindhu Ugale - who at 33 is a police 'naik', a rank higher than constable - said school helped prepare her for the written test, but she had no idea what the fitness test would entail.
Despite this, she ran 100 metres, then 800 metres, and managed a long jump on the day. Failing was not an option.
"All those years of toiling on the farmland, walking miles for water and grazing cattle made me physically fit," said Ugale, now a married mother of two.
"I gave it my best shot. I was desperate for a job. I wanted to escape marriage," Ugale said. ($1 = 69.0650 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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