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Change at the grassroots level is slow, but working to lead this change can be a satisfactory and joyous journey, as these 3 women prove with their work.
Meet Reena. She is a fourteen-year-old girl from a south Delhi basti. Her father is a rickshaw puller, and her mother works as a house help. Reena cooks, cleans, and tends to her siblings while her mother is away. She also goes to households for washing utensils. She had to drop out of school many years back.
Meet Sonu. He is the son of a vegetable seller in another marginalised community of East Delhi. His parents moved from a remote village of UP around ten years back. After a couple of failed attempts, he finally completed his class 10th last year. Generally wastes his time and is happy earning a few thousand playing dhol during the shaadi season.
Reena and Sonu are amongst the many marginalized and vulnerable children whom we see around us everyday. Some are begging at temples and traffic lights, others are seen selling vegetables or flowers, a few are pushed to accompany their parents and assist them at work, and some very unfortunate ones get into notorious activities. While a few of us may turn away and ignore their state, others may give them some food or make donations, but there are a few, very few who dedicate themselves to the cause of transforming the lives of the not so fortunate.
During the past few years, while working in the development sector, I have had the privilege of working with a few women who work with marginalised and vulnerable children, at the grassroots level, despite the several day-to-day challenges and administrative problems. Here are their stories.
Who is Dr Meenakshi Nayar?
“There was always the thought of doing something for girls at the back of my mind, and the issues of negative body image and social constructs that girls grow up with, particularly during adolescent years, concerned me…”
Dr Meenakshi Nayar is a visionary who spoke about skill development and career guidance for the underprivileged youth, more than a decade ago when these were unheard of concepts. That’s how she envisioned ETASHA (Enabling and Training Adolescents for a Successful and Healthy Adulthood) in 2006.
A doctorate (FPM) in Organisational Behaviour from IIM Ahmedabad and a Masters in Industrial Psychology, she grew up with the dream of joining the corporate world and spent a good time at it before listening to her heart.
The story of ETASHA
The desire to do something for the social cause had always been there, thanks to her family, especially her father, who himself was into many social causes. Dr Nayar put up a sexuality workshop and conducted it at an NGO in Delhi, which became a turning point in her life. What followed then was a detailed baseline survey to understand communities at the underprivileged level along with a thorough industrial study, and soon ETASHA was born.
Today, more than a decade later, the ETASHA Society works for the employability of youth with a focus on income generation and 360 degrees ecosystem.
The programs run under five verticals, with a focus on skill education, confidence building, and career guidance, apart from counselling, and working with school teachers. Adolescents from as early as the eighth standard in the government schools are trained in various skills. ETASHA also works with the ITI’s (Industrial Training Institutes) for vocational training, employability, and placement of youth. And a recent program for older women aims at building entrepreneurial skills in them.
Dr Nayar was honoured with the Women Transforming India award in 2016, as part of Niti Aayog and UNDP’s effort to salute the indomitable spirit of women working tirelessly to empower communities and transform India.
So what keeps her motivated in a perennially challenging set-up?
“My motivation are the individual cases and their stories. The vulnerable youth who are able to break out and achieve at least some of their potential, which they always had. Like this girl Seema who was pushed to stay with her sister after she lost both her parents. Her sister treated her like free labour. A lot of effort went in to get this girl into our program. When first she was asked to introduce herself in the class, she broke down miserably. Now that girl is working at a famous retail store and has made a life of her own.”
ETASHA has till now covered a total of 29626 youth, 125 ITI Trainers, and 195 aspiring women entrepreneurs since its inception, which is a testimony to her team’s dedication for the cause.
“In this journey of several years, there has been never ever been a moment of looking back irrespective of several challenges. If you really want something, the entire universe conspires to get it for you, that has been my guiding principle with ETASHA and will always be…”
“I have always believed that if I can educate one girl in each household in this community, I would have transformed an entire family and many generations to come..”
Who is Asha Kumar?
Nasirpur and its adjoining slums in West Delhi are some of the most densely populated slums of the city. Every year thousands of people migrate from villages in the countryside and make this slum their permanent abode.
Asha Kumar or Asha ma’am as she is fondly known as has been working since 2001 in these slum communities.
As everyone needs to earn, the illiterate parents allow their children to drop out of school early and work, without seeing the value of them completing their education. But the percentage of such parents has significantly decreased with people like Asha Kumar who have been working relentlessly at the grassroots for this.
The story of The Vigyan Vijay Foundation
Asha Kumar’s life is no less than an inspiration in itself. She not just completed her school but also her undergrad in sociology post marriage while taking care of her four daughters.
In the year 2001, she founded The Vigyan Vijay Foundation along with her daughter Lipika Ahuja in memory of her late husband, Mr Vijay Kumar, with one school in the Nasirpur slum. Today there are four schools and a skill development centre, which cater to the education and skill development of several underprivileged children and youth.
Saakshar is the flagship project of the organisation. It focuses on integrating the children in mainstream education using the method of ‘value-based education’. The program aims to make children catalysts of positive change so that they can inspire others in their community. But there are several mindset issues which need to be worked upon.
The organization’s program called Tarang takes it from where Saakshar ends. It empowers the youth on digital literacy, personality development, English proficiency and employability skills.
What keeps her motivated?
“While girls in these communities are more keen on continuing their education post 12th, boys from these slums want jobs which pay them handsome salary immediately after Class 12th, and the parents continue thinking that studying beyond 12th isn’t required…”
In spite of the beautiful programs and a dedicated team, the biggest challenge remains… to mobilize the community. What keeps Mrs Kumar motivated and working relentlessly is the trust which has been created for her work in the community. There is a positive attitude to learning, and even waiting lists in few of her schools.
“Parents say that the government nurseries are poor, and private ones do not teach the values their children love to learn at Saakshar. A number of parents even want Saakshar to become a formal school where their children can learn full time. That is enough for me and my team to keep working for another 10 years…”
“A child from vulnerable background once said to us – I have a dream. That made us think – what is the challenge.”
About Learning Curve Life Skills Foundation
A teacher by profession, Gayatri was running her own preschool in Hyderabad, when she decided to move as a full-time member of the Learning Curve Life Skills Foundation in 2015. Founded by her spouse Subbu Parmeswaran in 2011, the organisation enables emotional and social development of children between 8 and 14 years of age in under-resourced, marginalized and vulnerable environments.
Learning Curve’s unique program design was formulated by the couple after doing intensive research and spending time in various underprivileged communities.
“Every child has the right to realize one’s own potential as a human being. More than academics, children from vulnerable backgrounds need help with their overall self-esteem, identity, expression, self-confidence and the opportunity to realize their own potential.”
Working at grassroots level
Gayatri and team are successfully deploying a design at grassroots which revolves around teacher transformation and a unique delivery model with a structured toolkit for each grade.
Social and emotional development of children still is a relatively new concept in our country, and life skills education is given secondary importance. But by keeping the child at the core, celebrating teachers as change makers, transforming classrooms as enabling spaces and engaging parents as critical stakeholders, the organization has transformed lives of more than 400 teachers and 11000 students across 55 schools in two states of Telangana and Tamil Nadu in just few years of coming into existence.
For a young organisation, there are several challenges, including working on funds. At the same time, when the work is on the social/ emotional development and life skills, which remains undervalued as of today, things may get daunting.
In such scenario, what keeps her motivated are the several examples of confident and happy teachers as well as empathetic, compassionate and informed students.
“This happened in one of the underprivileged school where we run our program. The teacher had completed a session on empathy with her 7th grade children. One child in this class did not have proper shoes to wear to school. His shoes were badly torn and often kept together with the help of cello tape. After learning about empathy, all the children of the class pooled in some money together and gave it to the school leader, requesting her to give it to the boy, so that he can buy shoes. This gesture had touched the hearts of everyone in the school.”
Owing to the organization’s impressive work at the grassroots, Andhra Pradesh Government recently invited her and the team to assist in the design of Happiness Curriculum for the state schools which is a huge acknowledgement of the efforts and its impact.
A mother to two and a talented artist by passion, Gayatri admits, “There have been difficult and less difficult moments, but nothing that would push me to consider leaving this role. In fact, such moments have only made me and our team stronger in working towards what we believe in. My younger one says she wants to be a part of Learning Curve when she grows up, what could be better than that…”
Change is often slow in the social sector. But working to lead this change can be a satisfactory and joyous journey, that needs audacity, sheer resolve, and determination to get up and be ready for a new challenge every day. Each success story matters.
Kudos to these women who have dedicated their life for the cause and are transforming lives of many vulnerable children and youth.
Images source: Dr Meenakshi Nayar, Asha Kumar, Gayatri Natarajan
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Present - North India Lead - Education, Charter for Compassion, Co-Author - Escape Velocity, Writer & Social Activist.
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