Educate Destitute Girls in Kolkata, India

by Tiljala Society for Humans and Educational Development
Educate Destitute Girls in Kolkata, India
Educate Destitute Girls in Kolkata, India
Educate Destitute Girls in Kolkata, India
Educate Destitute Girls in Kolkata, India
Sabahat with her year 1 pass certificate
Sabahat with her year 1 pass certificate

I worry a lot about our sponsored girls. Schools have been closed for most of the last 15 months. Their parents are struggling to find the money to feed their families because they have been unable to work during lockdown.  In families where the children are first generation learners, the motivation to keep studying under these circumstances is liable to fade.

Our programme leaders, Shreya and Aamna, have worked very hard to keep the girls going.  We have ensured all those who have access to classes online have smartphones and we have done everything we can to support those who don’t. Many of the smaller girls collect assignments from their teachers and return them completed to the school. Not perfect – but better than nothing.

Last time I was in India, February 2020, just before the pandemic hit India, I met up with most of the girls on this programme.  I have always admired Sabahat and her mother. Sabahat’s mother, though illiterate herself, is desperately keen for her daughter to get a good education. And all had been going well: the girl completed her class 12 and went off to Victoria College, part of Calcutta University, to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree.  When we met last year, however, Sabahat had failed her first year twice. We had a long discussion and tried to understand what was going wrong. It seemed she lacked confidence and motivation. She was not attending her lectures and classes as often as she should. Youngsters from impoverished backgrounds can feel very intimidated in the hustle and bustle of university life. The majority of the students are confident, often privately educated and middle class. Sabahat is a simple girl from the slum. We asked her to take a couple of days to decide where she wanted to go and how to get there.  She came back the next day and promised that she absolutely was determined to get her degree so that she could become a teacher. She would renew her efforts.

I am very happy to report today that she has now passed her first year and is proceeding with her year 2 studies. I am so proud of her.  For a youngster from such a deprived background a very special effort is required and she has really put in the effort. Perhaps remote learning has helped her but most of all it is her determination. She is also helping out her family by earning a little money from tutoring. One day, I’m quite sure, she will be the qualified teacher she hopes to become, helping to lead other girls away from early marriage, illiteracy and drudgery and into a brighter future.

This programme provides each beneficiary with the tuition fees, the books, the uniform, medical expenses and any other essential items to enable them to remain in education. During the pandemic your contributions are also helping to provide the neediest families with food rations and any medical help they might need. But perhaps the most important intervention is the guidance, encouragement and counselling the girls receive from Shreya and Aamna and the other staff at Tiljala SHED.

Your contributions are working very hard indeed to keep girls like Sabahat on track. Thank you very much on behalf of them all.

Ayesha wants to be a criminal lawyer
Ayesha wants to be a criminal lawyer
Zainab uses her smartphone to access her education
Zainab uses her smartphone to access her education
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Akansha receives her smartphone
Akansha receives her smartphone

Gayatri and her four daughters live in a single room in a slum in central Kolkata. She desperately wants her daughters to complete their education so that they can have a better life than hers. Gayatri supports her family with the help of an ancient Xerox machine. The tiny income she earns from photocopying is barely enough to feed the family. When the machine breaks down the family goes hungry because she needs to have it repaired. Her greatest fear is that the machine will fail completely leaving them destitute. During the pandemic Gayatri has diversified and now sells facemasks as well.

Two years ago Gayatri came to us as she had heard that Tiljala SHED runs a small education project for very needy girls. She asked us to help with her youngest daughter’s education. We didn’t find a sponsor for Akansha, but we have managed to squeeze her in to the project. She is only in class 2, but we could see that she is a bright girl with tremendous support from her mother (which is really the key for these girls).  Akansha’s older sisters share a smartphone and now need it it to access their online education whilst India’s schools have been closed. Once Akansha also needed to go online for her learning the situation became impossible for all four daughters. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, Akansha has received her own smartphone and has all the basic costs of her education covered. This includes things like uniform, shoes, a school bag, books and stationery. Where needed we cover tuition fees, travel expenses and the cost of our own meetings and workshops. During the pandemic, any costs we saved on uniforms, travel and shoes we were able to distribute to the families for extra food. It was very much needed.

Schools in West Bengal opened again last week and Akansha and her sisters will be able to enjoy a return to some kind of normality.

We want to thank you and all our donors for your continued generosity especially now when our beneficiaries have suffered such terrible hardship.  Of course your support is more necessary than ever, so please consider a donation today so that Akansha and so many girls like her can continue to reach for a better life through education.

Gayatri selling masks to support her 4 daughters
Gayatri selling masks to support her 4 daughters
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Shehnaz recently
Shehnaz recently

This is Shehnaz. She lives in an illegal shack in Tangra, one Kolkata's squatter ragpicker communities. Her mother is a ragpicker. But Shehnaz is studying at Victoria College in the University of Calcutta. She wants to become a teacher. Until recently it was very unusual for us to persuade families to keep their daughters in education but Shahnaz is an exception. 

This is what I wrote about her in a report in January 2019

“To grow up the child of a rag picker puts you among one of the most marginalised and despised groups in society. Even within the slum where you live, you are at the back of the queue for water. In a highly stratified society you are right at the bottom. Shehnaz’s mother is a ragpicker. She supports her family of six by collecting cardboard, plastic, paper and metal waste from the streets and selling in on to dealers.

Unlike many other rag pickers Shehnaz’s mother wants her children to stay away from child labour and to get an education. All the children except Shehnaz’s disabled 6 year old brother attend school. We admitted Shehnaz to this programme because her mother couldn’t afford to pay for the additional tuition necessary for her daughter to pass her exams. Since then Shehnaz has passed her class X and is happily studying in class XI. With your support and her hard work she will pass class XII next year and have the opportunity to go into higher education.”

The COVID-19 lockdown and the closure of schools in India has put girls like Shahnaz at great risk of being pushed into early marriage. So we at Tiljala SHED have been extra vigilant throughout these difficult times ensuring that Shehnaz and the other girls have continued as far as possible with their education. This has meant in many cases supplying the whole family with food rations at times when there was no work for daily labourers and even beggars and ragpickers couldn’t go outside to scrape a living from the streets.

I am delighted that Shehnaz passed her class XII and is now at University - she is unique in her community . And in order to help her access her education online we will be giving her a smartphone later this week.  She will be able to keep in close contact with her lecturers and her curriculum. We have also mobilised a team of volunteers who will provide technical support, mentoring and career advice – all to be delivered via Shehnaz’s phone. 

We still desperately need sponsors to come forward with support for more girls like Shehnaz. It is girls like her who will go on to bring positive change to her community and to help other vulnerable girls to escape a future of abuse, poverty and exploitation.

Just £30 a month can transform a life and even a community…

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Girls and their parents at our January meeting
Girls and their parents at our January meeting

It seems like a very long time ago, but when I was in Kolkata in January I met up with almost all the sponsored girls on this programme. What struck me most of all was how confident the girls have become. They all spoke English with me and were able to tell me about school and what they hope to do with their education. I was so proud of them. Their living conditions are very difficult especially for those who need to study.

I was concerned that Zainab’s attendance at school was very poor, as low as 30%.  We have set 85% minimum attendance as a qualification to remain on the programme. This seems to me fair – as there are many girls desperate to have the opportunity in life that our donors have given Zainab and co.  So Shreya, Aamna and I tried to understand from Zainab and her mother what the problem was. The family of 5 lives in a single room. So Zainab only gets to sleep at 11 when her parents go to bed. Her school day begins at 6 am – and she had been struggling to wake up in time, and felt exhausted all day. She’s a teenager and her body just wasn’t able to cope. Her mother was very co-operative and said that they would try to make changes in the family routine so that Zainab could get enough sleep and be fresh for school. They agreed to come back into the office a week later to report on how things were working out. Mother and daughter duly returned. Zainab looked 100% better. She had attended school each day and was getting enough sleep. She loves school and wants to do well in life, but the family had slipped into a routine that made schooling difficult for Zainab. Very few of these girls have literate parents so it is sometimes down to the programme staff, Shreya and Aamna, to provide the mentoring, guidance and sometimes firmness to keep the girls on track.

Since my January visit the world has changed for all of us. India’s lockdown began in mid March so there has been no school or college for any of the girls. Many of their families have suffered terrible hardship as their parents cannot work.

Shreya and Aamna have kept in touch with all the families and have ensured that all got food rations as part of Tiljala SHED’s emergency food distributions.

But India’s pandemic is far from abating. Kolkata is not as hard hit as other large cities, but there is still no regular education available. Your donations will be needed more than ever once the girls are back at school and college. Meanwhile, we are doing our best to get as many of them joining online classes as possible. Sofia, for instance, has no access to the internet but three times a week she is able to join online classes on a friend’s phone. Ayesha has been attending online classes but is now able to go along to tuition classes. Gradually things are opening up. We are working with each girl to ensure she's getting whatever help is available to her.

January Meeting
January Meeting
January Meeting
January Meeting
One of the mothers receiving food rations
One of the mothers receiving food rations
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Shabnam
Shabnam

On the face of it, Shabnam’s circumstances sound as bad as anyone’s. She lives in the Darapara slum sharing 2 small rooms (80 sq ft) with 10 other family members. Her father was an embroiderer but has almost lost his sight and cannot work anymore. Her mother is a maidservant, earning just Rs2000 (£20) per month. Her brother is a salesman bringing in Rs 6000 (£60) per month.  He himself has two severely disabled children.  The family is originally from Bihar and are respectable, my colleagues tell me: they would rather starve than beg. But on this tiny income of just about £80 a month they regularly face starvation. Thanks to Tiljala SHED’s emergency food programme, the whole family receives rations occasionally.

Meeting Shabnam in the Tiljala SHED office recently, I would never have guessed what terrible hardship she suffers.  For Shabnam, defying the odds, is at college and studying to become a lawyer.

“My first priority is my family” she told me.  “The first thing I’ll do when I start earning is release my mother from her job”.  She said, “I’ll give all the happiness to my mother and father because they deserve it”.

Thanks to the generosity of Bhawanipore College where she has a scholarship, to a private benefactor and to extra tuition and lots of moral support from staff at Tiljala SHED, Shabnam is getting close to realising her dream. She passes all her exams with flying colours.

It is the combination of Shabnam’s drive and ambition and the external support she gets from Tiljala SHED and donors like you, that leads to success. As a qualified lawyer, Shabnam will change many more lives.

Please consider a generous donation to this excellent project so that we can empower more women and girls like Shabnam.

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Organization Information

Tiljala Society for Humans and Educational Development

Location: Kolkata - India
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @TiljalaSHED
Project Leader:
Jane Manson
Kolkata, India
$44,784 raised of $60,000 goal
 
636 donations
$15,216 to go
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