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…
News from January and survival during COVID19 Lockdown
By Jane Manson | Fundraising
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.
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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