Woman teaches slum girls to dream big

Woman teaches slum girls to dream big

KOLKATA: Girls at Gobindopur railway colony would never dream of building their lives on their own terms with hardly any of them ever getting the opportunity of attending school and most of them being married off by 16. Many would face regular abuse at home, but they would not dare to protest. Finally, one of them, Uma Singh (27), decided to change things around and took up the cudgels for her tormented sisters in the colony, one of the largest slums in south Kolkata.

The first woman to graduate from the slum, Uma gathered youngsters from the area to launch a door-to-door campaign aimed at sending girls to school instead of marrying them off early. Eight years later, the number of girls dropping out of school has fallen dramatically, while underage marriages have stopped. Several girls from the slum are now training to be schoolteachers, painters or computer instructors.

Uma is pleasantly surprised with the transformation. “It pained me to see girls around me suffer like that. They had no ambition, no dream or desire. They were just happy to be alive which, I felt, was unfair,” she said. Uma got together a few of her like-minded friends and formed a group to fight for girls’ rights. It wasn’t a smooth start in troubled Gobindopur, where settlers were being evicted. Fighting to hold on to their shanties, residents did not really care about how their daughters should be treated. But Uma and her group didn’t give up.

They held meetings and workshops, performed street plays and screened films to spread the message of girls’ rights. Initially, they would be snubbed and asked to stay away from “personal affairs”. “It was a challenge for we were fighting a social evil and the deep-rooted belief that girls were not supposed to be ambitious. They were never treated on a par with boys. What’s worse, they didn’t have access to basic rights, such as education or even two square meals a day,” Uma said.

With her 20-member team, which was christened Nabadisha in 2008, Uma went from door to door, asking women to send their daughters to school. Some refused, fearing their husbands’ wrath. “We started sending those children to school without letting the men in the family know about it. Those who couldn’t be admitted to nearby schools were tutored at a centre in the slum. We noticed a slow change in the girls’ attitude. Even after the men learnt that their daughters were attending school, they didn’t really object,” said Uma.

Ratna Mandal said she would have been married off by now, had it not been for Uma. “She gave me the courage to dream of building a career,” said Ratna who is training to be a dancer.

Over the next two years, Nabadisha spread their work to five slums in the area. Most girls even in those slums now attend school, with more than 20 of them having cleared their higher secondary exams. Many are now preparing to work, which was unthinkable 10 years ago. Early marriages have been curbed but not stopped.

Nabadisha runs computer, drawing, dance and spoken English classes for girls who are counselled and guided every Sunday. “We hold ‘self-exploration’ sessions where we discuss their strengths, weaknesses and their future plans. Their problems are addressed. Girls in the slums have gathered the courage to dream big and stand up to wrongs within and outside the family,” said Poonam Sadhukhan, a Nabadisha member. Around 150 girls, aged between 10 and 18 years, are now being tutored, while over 100 have been assisted in three years.

Uma says she wouldn’t stop her work till drop-out rate among Gobindopur girls turns zero and they can support themselves financially. “We have managed to convince slum dwellers that girls deserve to be treated as equals and should be given a chance to realize their dreams. Once we have more girls working, their families will fall in. We are not going to rest till then,” Uma signed off.



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