“We are five sisters. For my parents, earning enough to feed all of us is a daily challenge. When they decided to take me out of school after Class 5, I understood. It was not that they were partial to me because of my disability, they loved me just the same, even gave me special care and attention. But they just could not imagine how education would matter for me. Also carrying me to the school, which is quite far from home had become more difficult as I grew up.
All my sisters went to school and I started feeling left out. Sometimes, I felt like I was a useless burden to my family. One day, Rajni didi came and started asking me about school. When she realised that I had been sitting at home for two years, she talked to my parents and convinced them to continue my education. It was arranged that the school van would pick me up daily from my home. I also got a wheelchair. Going back to the classroom, I started working even harder, because I did not want to drop out again. Didi came home regularly with many other girls my age and we would all sit together and share our lessons, didi would talk to us about our health, share information about everything.
In Class 8th, I got a scholarship because of my consistently good performance in school. I was so happy to have made y parents proud of me for the first time in life. I am awaiting my Class 12th results now and hope to score well. Only then I will be able to enter a college and pursue a course of my choice. Yes, I cannot walk, but that does not mean I cannot go ahead in life. ”
As Nidhi from the Shri Ram JJ Camp, a highly congested slum cluster in South Delhi housing a large migrant population, shared her experience, the audience was struck with awe. Her confidence and determination impressed all. The occasion was the Learning Fest, organised under Smile Foundation's Swabhiman programme. It was an initiative to bring together all the Swabhiman Scholars from Delhi on a common platform where they shared their stories, challenges, dreams, and aspirations with each other. Women achievers from diverse fields including IPS officers, doctors, entrepreneurs and educationists were there to encourage the girls, and felicitate them with their scholarship certificates.
92 exceptionally talented girls were awarded the merit-based Swabhiman scholarship last year to complete their schooling and higher studies. These girls are all first generation learners, with their parents engaged as domestic help, drivers, street vendors and daily wagers.
Parul with her biggest inspiration - her mother
Along with difficult financial conditions at home, these champions also had to overcome the prevailing gender bias in their families and community, and the vicious trap of child marriage, to even go to school.
Parul's father was completely against the idea of sending her daughter to school. While her brother went to school, she was advised to stay at home and take lessons in household chores. However, Parul's mother realised the importance of education for her daughter and started saving whatever little she could from her meagre wages as a construction labourer to enroll Parul in school.
From the very beginning, Parul made her mother proud as she excelled in school. When she secured 84% in her Class 12th exams, even her father could not hide his happiness. At present, she is studying Hindi Literature at Delhi University and wants to become a professor. “My mother has never taken a vacation. When I get a job, the first thing
wabhiman scholars rejoice after getting their scholarship completion certificates at the Learning Fest held in New Delhi
I am going to do is take her on a holiday”, says Parul, from the Shashi Garden slum area of East Delhi.
When girls are educated and empowered, the whole society benefits. The Swabhiman scholars have not only brought happiness to their families, but have also become beacons of hope for their whole communities.
“Suhani Didi” is today an inspiration for her peers, the young and the old alike in the dilapidated slum cluster where she lives. Besides pursuing her post graduation from South Campus, Delhi University, she has taken an initiative to teach the out-of-school children from her community. But her journey till here has not been easy.
proud of, and that her only dream is to ensure that “every girl in my community is educated”.
Nidhi, Parul and Suhani were successful in escaping the vicious trap of illiteracy, child marriage and much worse things that young girls in our country have to face every day. A third of the world's child brides are in India, with as many as 47% girls getting married before they turn 18. Commenting on the dismal educational status of girl children in India, Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director, UNFPA, has said “Around 14 per cent of girls aged 15-19 years are illiterate, and 73 per cent never get to complete more than 10 years of school. Facts like these make investing in the education, health and empowerment of girls especially relevant and important for India.”
After the death of Suhani's father when she was just four, the responsibility of the family
fell on her mother and elder brother, who was a child himself, studying in Class 8th at the time. Her mother took up the job of a sweeper, while her brother dropped out of school and started doing odd jobs to manage the bare survival of the family. Her elder sister, who was in Class 7th, was taken out of school and
married off in the village. A similar fate awaited Suhani, but she firmly took a stand and decided to continue her education. When she was awarded the Swabhiman scholarship in Class 8th, Suhani started taking tuitions and since then has been making a significant contribution to the family income.
While her mother declares that her daughter is the only girl to complete graduation in her entire family and even the whole neighbourhood, Suhani feels this is nothing to be
A girl child comes into this world with just as many expectations, dreams and aspiration as a boy, but soon finds out that her way towards achieving them is much more challenging. Starting from something as basic as her right to be born, she has to fight a battle all her life and struggle for the most fundamental needs – for freedom, for equal opportunity, for making her voice heard.
The Swabhiman scholars have proved that with determination, hard work, courage and a little support, it is possible to defeat the circumstances and emerge as winners. Each one of them is an inspiration for thousands of other girls struggling to survive. As a society now, the question lies with us – girls are ready to take on the world, are we?
Parina Tamang, from Peshok village in Kalimpong, works hard to fulfil all needs of her brother's children Siddhartha & Diptika
Snow covered gigantic mountains, lustrous tea gardens and lots of soothing fresh air welcomes you at Kalimpong – a quaint tourist destination in West Bengal. It is difficult to believe that this mesmerizing land that is a haven for travellers is at the same time a rough struggle for its own inhabitants.
400 every month. But it cannot go on like this”, says 77 year old Geeta Rai of Tuttihatta village. Geeta is clear that her granddaughter Supriya's future would be different. The old lady has been the girl's only family after her parents passed away. She has never let Supriya work in the tea gardens like the other children of the village did to support the family income; rather she chose to send her to school.
Majority of the native population in Kalimpong works in tea gardens and estates, toiling hard to make ends meet and living on a bare minimum. The average daily wage of a tea plantation worker here is a meagre Rs. 65. To add to their woes, in recent years, tough competition from neighbouring states has led to the closing down of many tea estates.
“These are hard days. We do not get work every day, sometimes even for a whole week. Then we have to manage through other means. I go and cut wood from the forests and then take it to the market and sell. With that I can get Rs. 300-
Geeta was also one of the first parents in the village to welcome the Mission Education centre, which finally brought school closer to the children who earlier had to travel kilometres in the tough terrains to reach the nearest school in another village. Distance has in fact been a major reason behind the alarmingly high drop-out rates in Kalimpong, with isolated hamlets consisting of as few as 8-10 houses spread across the region, cut-off from the most basic amenities. In the rains, it became impossible to brave the
muddy hills to reach the school and led to long gaps between lessons, ultimately forcing the children to go to work at the plantations.
“For how long can we survive this way? We might run out of work in a few years. Our children will have to do something else, it will be best for them. But for that we need to start preparing for their future now. We must make them educated so that they can get good jobs”, adds Geeta. She encouraged other parents in the village to enrol their kids at the Mission Education centre and thanks to her efforts; the children are now back into the fold of education.
Gopal Lakhandri of Garlang village might have lost his job at the tea gardens, but he ensures his children go to school everyday
A similar initiative was taken by Gopal Lokhandri of Garlang village. Having six mouths to feed – his wife and five children, Gopal had already been finding survival difficult when he lost his job at the plantation. For six months now he has been working twice as hard to find work every day and not let his family suffer. But he refuses to make poverty an excuse for taking his children out of school.
“Three of my children go to the Mission Education centre in the village, the two youngest are not of age yet. I drop them to the school myself and make sure they do not miss a single day. We never got this opportunity, but at least our
An ongoing class at the Dong Basti Mission Education centre
Single mother Sonjita Rai from Kharbari village wants to bring up her children Diya & Dipjal as good and responsible human beings
children are getting it, that too free of cost”, says Gopal. Taking cue from Gopal, other parents also, hesitantly at first, enrolled their children at the centre. Gradually however, they have gained conviction and have started taking active part in the parents' teacher meeting sessions held regularly to update them with their children's progress.
Besides Tuttihatta and Garlang, three more Mission Education centres are currently operational in Kalimpong at Dong Basti, Kharbari and Peshok. Similar stories of grit and determination from parents in all the five villages have set the wheels rolling to usher in change. Despite their daily struggle for survival, they have decided to ensure a secure and dignified future for their children. These plantation workers are not just cultivating tea – they are cultivating hope, they are cultivating dreams!
Sports equipment, playing facilities and innovative teaching learning material is provided at all five Mission Education centres in Kalimpong
A man carrying the dead body of his wife for 12km. 4 desperate daughters carrying the body of their mother on their shoulders for cremation. These are the images that resurface in our heads when we think of Kalahandi, where even burying one’s dead remains a struggle. It would come as no surprise then that a staggering 72% of the population in Kalahandi lives below poverty line.
The tragedy of Kalahandi started in 1965 when rains failed the region. For thousands of agonising days, people starved. Out of desperation, women began to abandon or sell their children. Many died. Many left their villages to never return again.
51 years have passed. Today, with a population of more than 1.5 Million, the district is still counted as one of the most backward in India. Spells of droughts and famine have been frequent and starvation deaths continue to be reported in the district. Recently, Kalahandi has also been declared as one of the worst affected districts by Left Wing Extremism which clearly points at the socio-political turmoil that is haunting the already suffering inhabitants of the district. The insurgency drives away any benefits that the people might hope for as traversing the roads entails danger. Modern progress is propelling the nation into development; however, it has left none of its benefits to the remote and cut-off villages of Kalahandi.
Young or old, women are breadwinners in the tribal clans of Kalahandi, Odisha, engaged in agricultural labour work like collecting sal leaves from the forests
As is the case mostly, the district came into the limelight when the image of Dana Majhi carrying his wife’s dead body was splashed across all media outlets. The forgotten land suddenly became everyone’s fancy. And the tribal man had sudden resources bestowed upon him. One would argue that this happened a little too late for him, when in the hour of need he had been denied even an ambulance service.
While this incident made the decadent state of health services in Kalahandi quite evident, the many probes that followed brought to fore the reasons why it is so. The lack of clean drinking water seems to be one of the major causes that have been forcing the villagers to consume water from contaminated sources, leading to various illnesses. Large distances, often blocked by water bodies, to the primary health centres from the villages is another factor which hinders the sick from availing medical services. As a result, for generations, the tribal people in the region have been losing their lives to preventable diseases like tuberculosis, pneumonia, and malaria.
These persistent roadblocks only add misery to the poor populace of this vast land. With even food and water out of their reach, necessities like education and healthcare find no place in their daily lives. When Smile Foundation initiated its mobile hospital programme Smile on Wheels in 41 villages of Kalahandi, it seemed a challenge to rouse the people from the hopelessness that seemed to have enveloped the whole district. Unexpectedly, it was the tribal women who came to our aid.
The safest place on Earth - my mother's arms: Mothers in Kalahandi tie-up their children close to their bodies when they go out to work.
Dr. Dilip Samal, President of the Odisha Voluntary Health Association, a local organisation that has been working to strengthen the healthcare infrastructure in Kalahandi for years and has partnered with Smile Foundation to implement the Smile on Wheels project, shares, “The maternal mortality rate and the infant mortality rate of the district are both alarmingly high, much worse than the national average. About 10% of children die at birth alone, while those who manage to survive succumb to malnutrition and other ailments. The women have borne the brunt for too long and are not willing to leave their children in the hands of a cruel fate anymore.”
Majority of the women in the tribal belts of Kalahandi are illiterate. However, most of them are breadwinners and toil alongside their husbands to provide for the needs of their children, mostly engaged in low-paying agricultural labour work. With alcoholism rampant among the men, the onus of running the household and bringing up the children lies largely with the women.
These strong women, hardened by suffering are yet motivated to walk the extra mile for the survival and well-being of their children. Not only are an increasing number of women availing the medical services provided by the mobile hospital, they have also been instrumental in informing and bringing more women from neighbouring villages to Smile on Wheels. Mothers are taking their children regularly for immunization and thanks to their continued efforts, some of the defunct health centres which had earlier been “no more than cow sheds” have now started functioning. The project is also liaising with and training government health workers, ASHA and ANM to ensure that health benefits can reach to women and children in the remotest of villages.
One of the major challenges in terms of women’s health in Kalahandi is anaemia. As per a health report by the Planning Commission of India, one out of every two women in the district is anaemic. The women also face very dangerous conditions of birthing. Many of them end up delivering in unhygienic conditions because going to the hospital is just not feasible for them. Now with Smile on Wheels spreading awareness among the pregnant women, more women are opting for institutionalized delivery which is increasing the survival rate of newborns and their mothers. Counseling sessions on nutrition, family planning and other vital health issues are also held, which are regularly attended by the community women.
Once Satya Narayan Thakur, project coordinator of the Smile on Wheels project in Kalahandi, asked a 30-year old mother during a routine check-up in Babubundel village, “What do you wish your daughter to become someday?”
Looking at her three-year old daughter, she replied, “Better.”
This hope of a “better” life that every mother dreams of for her children — and that every child, no matter where he/she lives, deserves, continues to fuel the determination of the tribal women of Kalahandi. And their incredible willpower becomes an inspiration for the Smile on Wheels team to reach out to many more children and mothers with quality healthcare at their doorsteps.
Women and children line up to receive healthcare services from the Smile on Wheels Mobile Hospital