#NationalGirlChildDay: ‘My brother said freedom is not for girls, now I support my family financially’

In India, 40% girl students drop out of school by Class 8 (age 14), and 30% women are married before the age of 18, reveals a study.

National Girl Child Day is celebrated every year on January 24 to encourage parents to provide more and equal opportunities to their daughters in society. The aim of celebrating the day is to make people more aware about the importance of give girls a better life with respect to education, medical facilities and care.

Having completed 19 years in 2018, Magic Bus is one of the largest poverty alleviation programmes in India, impacting more than 3,75,000 children and young people in 22 states and 77 districts of India (FY 17-18).

The organisation recently shared the data from their programmes, and the study found that there was a 37% point increase in children attending school regularly, with 99% attending school five days a week at end line, as compared to 63% at baseline. Less than 5% of girls drop out of school by Class 8 (age 14). In India, 40% of girls drop out of school by Class 8 (age 14).

In the Magic Bus programme, 95% girls do not get married before the age of 18, whereas in India, 30% of women were married before the age of 18.

Here are a couple of success stories of how daughters made their families proud

‘I loved teaching children’

Pooja started working the day she completed her higher secondary, since she had to support her mother financially to earn for the rest of the family. She had moved to Bhalaswa with her family as a toddler, when residents of Nizamuddin’s squatter colonies were given a piece of land in Bhalaswa for Rs 7,000. “It looked like an attractive offer at first. To have some land of our own for such a little price. We had some savings to pay from. Father was optimistic that he can continue his business even in Bhalaswa.”

Pooja became a Community Youth Leader

“Initially, we were just happy to own a piece of land at such a low cost. The conditions were appalling. There was a huge dumping ground nearby, and the entire area was this vast, marshy, land. But we had no place to go back. We were doomed to live here,” adds Pooja who now teaches other children in the locality.

“I am grateful to my parents to have never taken me or my siblings off school. We struggled but my mother was very clear never to compromise on our education,” she said.

“I loved teaching children. When I went through the Magic Bus training and curriculum, I was plumbed. There were so many things in it even I didn’t know. I was worried I would never be able to teach children. I was so grateful to have Santosh bhaiya guiding me through the entire process.”

For Pooja, her proudest moment as a youth leader was when she led a group of girls from a minority community in her neighbourhood who were never allowed to step out of their homes otherwise.

“Ask a girl in Bhalaswa what freedom means? They would say, to be able to see the world outside their little homes, to be able to make friends without being asked questions about their character. Magic Bus gave us this sense of freedom and purpose.” Pooja points out.

Before long, mindsets were shifting at the home front too. “My parents were conservative. While growing up, my sisters and I were not encouraged to interact with people outside our relatives. It was mostly safety that my parents were worried of. After I decided to become a Community Youth Leader and lead a bunch of children, both boys and girls, their reservations gave way. They saw how well respected I was in the community because of my work,” Pooja explains.

“When I see myself now, I am surprised at how confident I have become,” she breaks into a smile. Four years ago when Pooja got an opportunity to work at Magic Bus, she was thrilled and relieved.

In the last four years, Pooja has worked with 750 children and mentored more than 27 youth leaders in Timarpur. She has also completed her Bachelors in Social Work and has enrolled in a Masters course with IGNOU. “If you have lived the life of an underprivileged, how can you not work for and with them?” says Pooja, who plans to build her career as a development professional.

‘For the first time, my mother was happier than me’

19-year-old Nazmeen’s father migrated from Bihar in search of better livelihood opportunities leaving his wife, Nazmeen’s mother, behind. Nazmeen was not even born then. “This is how it happens. Initially, men marry, leave their wives and go to the cities in search of work. They seldom return, consumed by the attractions of a city life and unreasonable working hours,” explains Nazmeen, who resides at Haiderpur in north Delhi.

Nazmeen now works with a bank

After three years of her parents’ marriage, Nazmeen’s mother decided to follow her husband to Delhi. She was a mother of four children then. With no source of income and little-to-no support from her husband, it became increasingly inconvenient for her to just depend on relatives.

There were days when the family of five would go without food. Nazmeen’s father spent most of his income in alcohol and gambling. That’s when Nazmeen’s mother decided to move to a jhuggi in Haiderpur with her children, and started working as a domestic help, earning Rs 2,500 per month.

As her mother had to go for work, Nazmeen’s elder sister had to drop out of school and take up domestic responsibilities, and eventually got married at 17. “She is 30 years old now, and has four children. She was pregnant within a year of her marriage, at 18. I could never find out what her dreams could be. I shudder to think of a life like hers,” Nazmeen’s voice breaks recalling her sister who was almost like a mother to her.

Nazmeen got a chance to go to school at the age of six. But when she came home with a glowing report card at the end of each year, there would be no one to share her happiness. Her mother, worn out by financial troubles, would place her hand on her head, utter a blessing and wipe a tear from the corner of her eyes.

Although Nazmeen scored 75% in Class 10, she was sad as she knew her family would not support her dream to study further. Her mother admitted her to a madrasa but couldn’t continue beyond one month. “I was simply not interested. I pleaded with my mother to send me to school. After a lot of fights, she permitted me to study for two more years. I was relieved,” she says.

“I came first in Class 11 examinations and scored 86% in the higher secondary examination,” she says. However, she knew her mother would not allow her to go to college. But she wanted to make a last desperate attempt to convince her.

“My brothers supported my mother’s decision to not allow me to go to college. They were worried that I would become “too educated” to get any groom,” she explains. But Nazmeen found a way to go to college, with Rs 6,000 in her bank account from a government sponsorship (Ladli scheme) for adolescent girls in Delhi, she got herself enrolled in an open learning course (BA in Political Science) in Delhi University secretly.

However, her little secret was out soon, when her mother asked her to withdraw the money from her account as they were going through a financial crisis. “My mother was angry and upset. She stopped talking to me. I pleaded with her. I agreed to do all housework if she would allow me to sit for the examination once in six months” she said. After a lot of convincing, she relented.

After that, Pooja, Magic Bus’ Youth Mentor, approached her with an offer of teaching children the importance of education through activities.

“I loved the idea. I thought I could make use of my free time and teach children,” she explains. But, on the first day, her brother told her that such freedom is not ‘honourable’ for adolescent girls and strictly forbade her from going to the sessions ever again.

But Pooja would often visit her and talk about her career plans, and she eventually first heard about Magic Bus’ Livelihoods Centre, where Nazmeen started attending the training from November 2015. She started classes on life-skills, computer lessons, and English literacy. The staff helped her plan her career ahead. But she had given up hope for a career due to constant fights at home. Nothing Nazmeen said could convince her mother to allow her to work.

The next day, she was surprised to find the Centre Coordinator and the Counsellor visit her house. “If it hadn’t been for Mithilesh sir, Avinash sir, and Jayata ma’am, I would have been stuck at home now. All my efforts would have gone in vain,” she says.

In December 2015, Nazmeen got her first job with the HDFC bank for a salary of Rs 10,000 a month. “I couldn’t believe myself. For the first time, my mother was happier than me. She knew I could support her financially,” she says.

Nazmeen gives a part of her salary to her mother and saves a small part for a teacher-training course. “I haven’t forgotten my dream yet. It is to be a teacher,” her voice sparkles with silent excitement as she looks forward to her dreams with renewed vigour.