A springboard for underprivileged girls to leap forward into society
(Some of the girls in this story have been given fictional names to protect their anonymity)
Nina attends high school in the Sector-37 slums of Noida, a suburb of New Delhi infamously known as the neighborhood of the harijans (“untouchables”) - the lowest rung in India’s historical social caste system. For centuries, janitors, sewage workers and domestic laborers from this caste have served the wealthy lords of the city, while staying comfortably out of sight, far away in their ghettos. Today, this slum’s few earning members are domestic servants, vegetable vendors, rickshaw pullers and tailors. It is one of the poorest communities in India’s capital city. Here, girls stop dreaming at a very young age. The harsh realities of life repeatedly weigh down their tiniest flights of fancy, and replace them with cold indifference, a survival skill they will need as they live out a life of subservience. At an age when she should be in 4th grade, a typical Sector-37 girl will start working as domestic help. As she approaches teenage, her increasingly worried family (an unmarried girl is an extra mouth to feed and considered a serious liability) will start looking for a husband for her. And so the familiar story continues…
17-year old Nina is not like the other teenage girls in Sector-37. In fact, she is not like any other teenage girl I’ve seen. I am in a tiny teachers’ quarters in her school along with a few of her teachers, and Anu, Bloom & Give’s community lead. She begins “I am one of 4 children. My dad, Farhan, is a tailor with very strong views on what girls and women were meant to do”.
I find out later on from the teachers that Farhan’s no different from the other men here who believe that if a girl is “too educated”, it becomes impossible to find her a husband, and an unmarried girl is a lifelong burden. She continues… “When my older sister turned 14, my dad found her a husband and got her married. My mom …”, and she pauses, and her face softens up to an adorable smile that lights up the room, “… my mom is the nicest, softest person I know. She was against the marriage but she couldn’t gather the courage to question my dad”. I ask her where her sister is now and if she is happy … which is met with an uneasy silence. She tells me her mom feels guilty that she silently watched her daughter sentenced to the same prison she has been in all her life. “With me, my mom decided that things would be different. When I turned 14, and my father brought up marriage, my mom and I begged him to let me stay in school for another year”.
Her teacher adds that though Farhan agreed, he’d frequently send Nina off to the village hoping that when she came back, she would find school so difficult that she’d quit. “I remember I would cry a lot after every Math class because I just couldn’t follow anything. But I kept fighting on and Ms. Rashmi (her teacher) helped me through it. One time, I was in my village for 2 months, and I wrote a long letter to my dad begging him to bring me back and explaining to him that I wanted to grow up, do something to make him proud of me. That having a job would help me stand on my two feet and not depend on my husband or his family.” When Farhan heard the letter read aloud, he was in tears, moved by her conviction, and by the fact that his own little daughter could write so well. The teachers say that was a turning point. Since the letter incident, Farhan is a frequent, and proud, visitor to the school. Turns out he’s such a big fan of Nina that her other siblings and mother now use her to sneak in their special requests to him. “I charge them a Coke each time!” she adds, and then breaks out into a rolling laugh.
She continues “My dream is to become a TV news anchor”. Quick to notice my raised eyebrows, she explains, “My dad watches a lot of news. In fact, when he’s home, that’s all he does. One day, I want to be the one reading the news to him so he can be proud of me!” After she leaves, I realize that from the moment she walked in, Nina has owned the room. Her courage and charisma has left me in bewildered awe.
Nina’s transformation has been possible because she is in a special program for school dropouts, operated by Vidya & Child (V&C), a non-profit organization. Bloom & Give has partnered with V&C to fund 35 high school girls through this program. Mainstream school is no longer an option for these underprivileged girls who were once pulled out of school, either to get married, or to help with domestic labor. The carefully created curriculum provides them with academic support along with financial, career counseling and mentoring support. The program prepares the girls for examinations conducted by NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling), after which they can apply for admission to undergraduate courses in mainstream colleges. One of the teachers in this program specifically helps place the girls into careers that best fit the girls’ aptitude and aspirations.
Nina is one of girls in this program. Here are some others…
Jhalak and her sister are being raised by a single parent, their dad. She wants to finish school and get a job so she can care for her dad. She is a big fan of reality cooking shows and dreams of being a professional chef one day! She is also a very talented artist and teaches theater to kids in her neighborhood.
Sushma’s dad has not been in her life for years. Scared at the prospect of another mouth to feed, her mom tried to marry her off when she turned 15. The teachers at V&C successfully intervened. Today, her mom not only wants her to go on and get a job, but Sushma has helped her mom sue her dad for unpaid child support.
Mina came back to school after 10 years of doing domestic labor. After much hard work, she is now in high school. She wants to be a professional athlete!
Because these girls are often the first in their families to go to school, they can’t even find basic mentorship at home. The teachers have to step in. One of the teachers, who calls this model “longitudinal care” says it is about understanding what a girl likes to do and what she’s good at, both in school and especially, when she’s at home.
“Nina knew she wanted to be a news anchor from day-1. Not all girls are this lucky. We have to using our holistic knowledge of their personalities to help them develop a career path… and their confidence so that they can pursue this path alone. Their parents will not be able to understand or help her much”. The teachers now demonstrate this intimate knowledge of their students by reeling off the names of some of the past graduates of their programs.
Neha, for example, was a tailor’s daughter and perennial topper at school. When their home burned down in a fire, Neha talked to each of her dad’s customers and negotiated payment terms to pay their money back. A year later, she has repaid all loans. Needless to say, Dad is very proud, and a big advocate of the school in the community. Radha, who wanted to be a social worker after watching her mom and sister do domestic labor. The teachers helped her get a job as a vocational training coordinator at a non-profit. Since then, Radha has already helped 6 other graduates of this program to get scholarships for college degrees. And Deepika, Radha’s sister, who came here after her marriage, is now her husband’s business partner. Or Manju, a plumber’s daughter who is now studying to be a hotel receptionist. And Reksar, who is now a flight attendant, and Anjali, a hospital nurse. We hear countless more names.
The school has already arranged for Nina to visit the local TV station, where she gets to meet the anchors, and her teachers are counseling her towards a degree in Mass Communication at the local community college. We are betting on her, and that TV news is about to get a whole lot more interesting in these parts.
Vidya & Child runs and operates learning centers that support 1,600 underprivileged kids in places like Sector-37 in Delhi. It was founded in 1998 with the mission to help bridge the gap for children who have no access to the education they need. Their typical student is a first-generation learner, from socio-economically marginalized sections of society. Their unique model enables this student to close these socio-economic gaps and access mainstream opportunities.
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