■ The women trainees of Mamandur Vocational Training Programme show off their handiwork
I always thought my incomplete education would keep me from earning a decent livelihood. I have a family of five, including two younger sisters. I am the eldest child in the family. Both my parents work as daily wage laborers. They used to worry a lot as there I had no brother who could support the family financially.” Mamta's story is no different from the many young girls and boys who inhabit the villages of Kanchipuram. Mamta's parents had worked their entire life, earning and saving the little they could. Their lives were hard hit by the 2015 Chennai floods. Loss of homes, livestock and other belongings in the floods left little for the villagers. After the flood, the community people have been trying to put their lives back together. The damage was not only limited to the dark and dank homes with sodden belongings, covered in thick layers of mud. It was much beyond that.
■ Aiding by the hand - the trainer guides a women at the centre
To give a helping hand to the inhabitants in rebuilding their lives, Smile Foundation in association with PepsiCo Foundation launched a community development and rehabilitation programme in Mamandur and 11 other villages of Kanchipuram district, Tamil Nadu. One of the major highlights of the intervention was the Mamandur Vocational Training Programme, which encouraged women and girls from the village to enroll for a 3-month skill training course in tailoring and sewing so that they can have a dignified and independent livelihood.
“Initially I was apprehensive about joining the vocational training programme as women in our village only work as daily wage laborers at construction sites or stay back and look after their homes. Girls don't get to study or train to get a job. When I attended my first class at the training center, I felt so good about myself that I was also capable of learning a skill and earning a decent income. With time I gained confidence in my abilities and as I practiced more, I could see a good future ahead for me. Once I completed my course, I joined a garment factory near my village. When I took my first salary home, my father proudly said I am more than a son for him”, shares a teary eyed, smiling Mamta. She hopes to open her own tailoring shop soon.
More than 235 women like Mamta from 12 villages in the district enrolled in the first two batches of the vocational training programme and successfully completed the course. Many smiling faces could be spotted during the convocation ceremony when the women graduated from the programme and were felicitated with certificates. To motivate and encourage the women in this new phase of their lives, and to give them a little extra support, they were gifted with a sewing machine each. The whole community, including dignitaries like Hon' Minister of State for Industries, Thiru MC Sampath and Hon' Minister of State for Electricity, Excise & Prohibition, Govt. of Tamil Nadu, Thiru P.Thengamani, came together to congratulate the women on their achievement and wished them good luck for their future. The women in turn shared their stories and experiences, and the confidence with which they spoke left the audience speechless.
“I don't know what was harder – for me to lose my husband, or for my daughters to lose their father. Life did not allow us the time to even grieve. We were thrown out of the family home, where we had lived with his brothers' families. Penniless, I roamed around with my daughters for days, asking for food and help. After a month, I got my first job at a tea stall. From then on, I started doing part time jobs, which would also give me some time for my daughters. But the pay was very less and survival was difficult. I would have endured the suffering, if it had not been for my children. I could not bear to see them hungry and sick. When I heard about the vocational training course, I decided to join. I had to spend more time away from my daughters, but it was for their good. Now I have finished the course and have also got a sewing machine. In the first week only I got five orders. This is a new beginning for me and my daughters”, shared P Vineetha, one of the successful women trainees under the programme.
Most of the women who completed their courses have found jobs at tailoring shops and garment manufacturing factories like Mamta, or have begun working from home like Vineetha. There are many who have joined the programme after getting inspired from the success stories of the women who have now become independent, confident and able to merit a secure and dignified livelihood. Indeed, the villagers of Mamandur have not only successfully overcome the aftermath of the floods, but have also found a positive hope for a better future.
Neelam has been begging since she was very young. She does not remember the exact age since she started begging to support her family of five, including her husband and three kids. Her husband goes to the nearby city to earn a daily wage. She has begged all her life and so have her grandmothers and the other women in the small community she is a part of. Going to school and thinking of any other livelihood source was never a possibility for her and the other inhabitants of Chakrabhata village in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh.
The men in the Chakrabhata village throng to towns and cities to find labour work on daily wages to bring back home meager earnings which just about meet the most basic needs of their families – food, clothing and shelter. While the men go out for work, the women who are also burdened by the financial adversities go begging. Lack of proper education has made it difficult for the women to leave begging that has been going on for generations in the community.
But this does not mean that they do not dream of a different, improved life for their children. If anything, their helpless situation has made them more determined to ensure that their children do not have to face similar hardships. “Our only wish is to see our children live a dignified life, where they do not have to asks for alms and depend on the mercy of others to feed themselves”, says Neelam. Thus, it was the mothers who took the initiative of enrolling their children at Smile Foundation's Mission Education centre MITWA when it was first started in their village.
With the implementation of this centre, the children in the community are now not deprived of the right to education. And their mothers are not deprived of hope anymore. Just like the other women in the community, Neelam feels joyous when she sees her children reading and doing their homework. She continues to beg but is hopeful that her kids will have a better life. She says she has a better aim in life now and that is to get her kids educated so that they can lead good lives. Her kids love going to the education centre and they love reading the stories written in their books.
■ "Their progress is my biggest award" - teacher at MITWA
In addition to learning, they also enjoy playing with their friends and the poem recital class in the centre. The Mission Education Centre now has more than 100
■ The happy family at Mission Education centre MITWA in Bilaspur - happy children and committed teachers!
■ They might not have a permanent roof over their heads, but the mothers in
Chakrabhata are happy that their children are finally in school
children enrolled. Computer education is one of the major skills that the children are being taught at the centre. Deprived of education, proper food, adequate healthcare, the children now experience the little joys of a happy childhood. In addition to lessons for a brighter future, the students are given lots of love and care at the centre. While some of the children come to the centre without any goals, some have even realized that their motive to get educated is that they have to get skilled to earn a good job so that someday their mothers do not have to beg anymore.
A big percentage of our population still lives in destitution and one of the major reasons for this is the lack of education. A person who is not educated and aware is not equipped with the right mindset to take the right decisions in life. Limited and unequal access to education in our country makes it difficult for the weaker sections to emerge
and contribute towards the growth and development of the society and the country as a whole. Education is both the means as well as the end to a better life; means, because it empowers an individual to earn his/her livelihood, and the end because it increases one's awareness on a range of issues – from healthcare to appropriate social behavior to understanding one's rights, and in the process evolve as a better citizen.
With the children in Chakrabhata being nurtured as first generation learners, there is an even bigger responsibility on the teachers to ensure the holistic development of each child, so that they can grow into good human beings, responsible citizens and potential change-makers. These children after all will not just be writing their own future, but also will be the way their families and community have lived for generations – forever! ■
■ Reaching out with a helping hand - A young Smile volunteer aids an elderly lady during the Mega Health Camp in Gurgaon
■ Her only wish is to see her children and grandchildren once more!
They dedicated all their lives for their children, providing them the best of education and lifestyle they could. And now when they need their children the most, they have been left to take care of themselves, on their own. “I have not been able to sleep properly due to the pain in my left arm”, said a 60 year old Shanti Devi. When asked about her family, she said she had two sons and both of them have moved to the city. They come home sometimes and bring me a few things. She said, “I am happy for them”, smiling and wiping off her tears.
This is just one of the many heart touching stories we came across during the several health and support camps organized for senior citizens as part of Smile Foundation's healthcare projects across India. Hundreds turned up to avail the healthcare services, but in addition to imminent medical attention, what they needed the most was company – someone who would listen to them, say a kind word, hold their hand, and show just a little bit of love and care. Old age, coupled with poverty, neglect and loneliness is no lesser ailment for the less privileged elderly than the many health torments that they are bound to live with day and night. While in the prime of their lives, they struggled hard to ensure that their children do not have to sleep hungry, they have been left alone in an age when they are even unable to work for a living.
But you would not find them complaining. While some of them find solace in the company of their life partners who continue to be by their side despite time and age, others are determined to find an independent source of livelihood. They clearly do not wish to be an unwanted burden on their children, wanting nothing but some love and affection from them.
“Cataract had made my life tough. I was missing out on the small joys of my life. After a small surgery and a couple of visits at the doctor, my vision restored and once again, my life has become colourful. I only wish to see my children once more.” A grandfather to two kids, Shantaram had developed cataract in both his eyes. Due to lack of awareness and means to visit a health facility, he had attributed his vision loss to old age and had no hope that he could ever see again properly. Smile Foundation's cataract camp in Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh, came as a ray of hope in his life. He says Smile Foundation has not only given back his vision, but also his happiness.
■ The elderly turned out in great numbers for the special cataract camp in Bilaspur
Smile Foundation had launched an initiative to provide the minimum healthcare provisions to the senior citizens in Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh. Under the programme, a special eye cum cataract detection camp was organized in the area. In this camp, patients were subjected to eye tests and screening for cataract. The camp was attended by more than 400 people from different villages and majority of them were senior citizens having vision problems due to old age. Post screening, 180 patients, including both men and women, were identified for cataract surgery. These patients were counseled on the causes of the eye ailment they were suffering from and the treatment/surgery needed to restore their vision. All the identified patients underwent cataract surgeries successfully. To ensure full recovery, the patients were also explained the precautions they need to follow and were also provided the necessary medicines.
The camp gave a new hope to the elderly who have to earn their own livelihood. With corrected vision they will now be able to resume work and be independent. While many of the people were not even aware that cataract was treatable, others were simply negligent. Lack of awareness about the causes of cataract, its symptoms and treatment is a major factor that has led to an increase in the number of cataract patients in areas such as Bilaspur, particularly among the aged. Hence a major goal of Smile Foundation when organizing such camps was also to spread awareness among the community.
Another Smile Health Camp was organized in Gurgaon especially for the senior citizens. The camp was attended by both men and women. Old age leads to many health problems that are worsened by lack of awareness and neglect. Majority of the senior citizens who turned up for the camp were either living on meager incomes or with their families and had no funds for diagnosis and treatment.
A dedicated team of volunteers went from door to door to pick up the elderly from the identified slums and villages in the area, and after the camp ensured to drop them back to their homes safely. The team of doctors present at the camp not only performed screening tests on the attendees, but also explained ways in which they can take better care of themselves with minimum efforts. Free consultation along with the essential medication was provided to the beneficiaries.
■ Paying an attentive ear to the needs of the aged
Smile Foundation considers it a privilege to be able to take care of the health of elderly and aid them in any way which can reduce their pain and suffering. Senior Citizens for one of the most vulnerable sections of our society, along with women and children, and Smile Foundation will continue its efforts to bring quality healthcare to their doorsteps. The health and well being of the society's aged should not just be considered a responsibility of their children, the society as a whole should come forward to become the supporting pillar for the elderly. ■
■ An old couple avails of the medical services at Smile Health Camp
I come from a family, where it wasn't easy for me to have dreams. No one in my family had received education, and the same was applicable for me as well. Despite her inclination towards studies, my mother was not allowed to go to school. But she had a dream for me that I get educated and become an independent woman when I grow up. She bravely told her wish to my father, who opposed and threatened her with dire consequences. He said we don't have money to fund my education and moreover, there is no point providing education to girls. They just have to sit at home and perform household chores. What good would education do? But my mother stood by her decision, fought against all odds and managed to send me to a government school. She promised to my father that she will take care of my education expenses and would never ask him for money.” Afreen hails from a family where neither her mother, grandmother, nor her aunts had received education. None of the women in the family had been to a school.
Though Afreen started school, it wasn't easy for her and her mother. She tells that her father used to fight a lot with her mother and would always point out her education to be the cause of shortage of food, clothes and day-to-day expenses. “There were times I used to hold my books and cry silently as my mother continued to brave the harsh words hurled at her.” Her father was not the only one who had problems with her education; there were relatives who would say things that made it more difficult for Afreen to continue with her studies. “While some of my relatives would come to my home and advise my father to get me out of school as it was leaving a bad impression on their children, others had stopped talking to my family”. Amidst all these struggles, Afreen managed to study till class 10th.
■ Afreen's mother worked hard to ensure her daughter's education
Afreen had the enthusiasm to study and become an independent woman. She managed to go to school but her education was not enough to make her capable of earning a livelihood. She needed to learn skills that would make her employable. Smile Foundation gave her proper guidance to achieve her dream through its national livelihood programme STeP (Smile Twin E-learning Programme). “With the skill development programme, I regained my confidence and once again started nurturing my dream to become an independent woman”, says a happy Afreen who now works at a reputed Law Firm in Mumbai. Afreen, like many other youth in her village, has been trained for six months in English Proficiency, Basic Computer Education and Soft Skills that are essential skills that organizations look for when hiring an employee.
Afreen has two younger sisters, who should have by now started their schooling. But due to the conditions at home and witnessing the struggles their elder sister had to face, they don't even think of going to school. Afreen plans to save every penny of her earnings to educate her sisters, for she believes that only education can light up their lives. Afreen's story has not only inspired her relatives, some of whom have also started sending their daughters to school, but she has also set up an example for the entire community in her village. She says her father has now started believing in education and hopes that he would not oppose when her sisters start schooling.
Like Afreen, the over 100 youth currently enrolled at the centre have faced extremely difficult circumstances to even go to school. Some had to drop out after completing Class 10th, while others were able to finish school, but could not pursue higher education. Consequently, they could not get good jobs and were unable to support their families financially. After completing the STeP course and getting a hands-on workplace experience through its specially designed value-addition sessions such as career counseling, employer engagement and industry exposure visits, the youth are now assured, confident and score high on the employability scale. They are all set to become the first generation white collar workers in their families, a matter of great pride to their parents.
More than 32,000 youth have been trained under STeP so far, and of these, over 19,000 youth have been placed in around 150 reputed brands across India. With more young boys and girls like Afreen enrolling for the programme, Smile Foundation has been able to help them take the first step in the journey of turning their dreams into reality. ■
■ Afreen flashes a confident smile, all set to begin a new day at work
■ Afreen with the other students of her batch at the STeP centre. Many of them are now employed like her and are earning a dignified livelihood