Mumbai: In the narrow alleys of Aarey Colony, next to Royal Palm Estate in suburban Mumbai, lives Gulabsha Rafiq Khan. The 17-year-old lives with her mother and stepfather in a small one-room house whose entrance door greets with a prayer written in Urdu.
Her mother Tahira Khan, a native of Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, married early and came to settle in Mumbai with her husband Rafiq Khan, Gulabsha’s father. An unsettling feeling surrounds the two when they talk about his demise. “He was an asthma patient. One night while he was returning from work, he had an attack. He fell and his head hit a stone. He died on the spot,” says Gulabsha, tears welling up her eyes.
Her mother, a domestic worker, earns about Rs 2,500 a month, of which Rs 2,000 goes in paying the rent of the house. “My employees help us get ration – wheat and rice, but that is the only help we get.” Tahira’s second husband, who works as a cook, does not contribute in the house. “He just comes home late in the night to sleep. We don’t even cook for him any more,” she says.
Tahira, who has never gone to school, wants to see Gulabsha study and stand on her own feet.
Gulabsha studies in Class 10 and aspires to become an air hostess. “I would love to fly high,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “Most importantly, I want to earn so that I can become my mother’s support.”
To realise her dreams, she has made her life a clockwork, with hardly any time to play. Her day starts at 5 am and after finishing her school, tuitions, homework and helping her mother in house work, she ends her day at 10 pm. This is her routine for 6 days of the week. On Sundays, she she attends workshops and training with NGO PRATYek, a Delhi-based NGO that works for children’s rights. UNICEF India is its knowledge and financial partner.
In a run-up for Children’s Day, UNICEF has partnered with several NGOs across India with the mission that children from around the world take key roles in media, politics, business, sports and entertainment to voice their support for millions of their peers who are unschooled, unprotected and uprooted.
“Through these workshops, I know about the rights of the children, about the imbalances in the society where child marriage, child labour and child sexual abuse are common.”
Inspired by the learning, she wants to do something for the beggars and the child workers. “No child should beg on the road, it’s not right,” she says, her happy demeanour changing into a thoughtful one.
Eid is the only time of celebration for her, she says, “I invite some of my friends and we have seviyaan together.”
Right now, Gulabsha doesn’t have to pay for her school or bus fee as it is being taken care of by the school. Her tuition training is also taken care of by the NGO, but she is uncertain about what the future holds for her and how she will be able to afford her air hostess training course fee when she completes Class 12.
Their immediate concern, however, is that the landlord wants the house to be vacated by the end of the year and the mother and daughter are clueless about where they are going to live next.
“Financial constraints should not restrain her flight of dreams. She is a very bright child and if she gets the right training and environment, she can fulfil all her dreams,” says Sarah Fernandes, Senior Program Manager, NGO PRATYek, which leads the campaign “Nine is Mine”, calling the government to spend 9 per cent of the gross domestic product on health and education to meet the United Nations sustainable development goals.
In a small 10×22 room in Mumbai’s Goregaon West, lives 15-year-old Sandhyakiran Saroj with her parents and four siblings. Unlike other homes, this one bears the nameplate of Sandhyakiran’s mother Meera R Saroj. Her mother, a resident of Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur, did not get the opportunity to study and had an early marriage. Her dream, however, is to see her children study and make something out of their lives. It’s for this reason, the couple is labouring day and night.
“I have not studied, but want Sandhyakiran to dream big and achieve them too,” says her mother.
Her father, Raja Saroj, is a florist and the only earning member of the house. He gets help in Sandhyakiran’s elder brother and mother and works 15-16 hours a day to make ends meet.
“For my children’s education and their dreams, I will go to any extent and work,” he says.
While the parents put a lot of faith and trust in their children, the children too are sensitive about the financial constraints at home and are determined to change that. “I want to become a doctor and help other people in need,” says Sandhyakiran in fluent English. She says, she does not mind studying in a government school, while her younger siblings are enrolled in private schools.
“If a student has the will to study, he or she can study in any school,” says a confident Sandhyakiran pointing towards a chart paper on her room’s wall that says, “95% – I can and I will.”
She attends tuition at NGO Prayas and learn about child rights and their importance with mentors of NGO PRATYek. These sessions, she says, helped her hone her communication skills and shape her personality. “Going forward, I would also like to help other children, just the way my mentors have helped me,” she says.
She is a book lover and a high-scorer. Since her board exams are coming, she has stopped watching TV, she says, adding, “While my siblings fume that I don’t let them watch TV, they also understand and co-operate.”
With a loving and supporting family by her side, she is hopeful she can bring about a change in their lives and positively impact the lives of others around her.
Like Gulabsha and Sandhyakiran, 15-year-old Sandhya Sahu has also not had it easy. Living in the slums of Shivaji Nagar, she has grown up seeing harassment on streets, early marriages, substance abuse and domestic violence in her locality. She is extremely sensitive towards these issues and has been working towards eliminating these practices.
She is part of “Safe Communities for Mumbai” project, a programme by UNICEF India for protecting children in the most disadvantaged areas of the city, and has been assisting in mapping exercise to mark safe and unsafe zones in her locality.
“This exercise was done keeping in mind the children in the area who were advised to stay away from the unsafe zones,” says Sandhya, adding, “We also talk to parents of children and encourage them to send their children to schools and give their education a priority.”
She also led a team of girls, reached out to the local corporator and got the community’s toilet and playground fixed in her area. She is mentored by a local NGO – Committed Communities Development Trust (CCDT) and says that, “It is because of her mentors in the NGO, I have been able to break my shell and think not just for me and my family, but the community at large.”
Her mother, a domestic worker, has never studied books, but Sandhya on the other hand, has embraced books and wants to become a teacher. “I don’t want to be a leader, I want to bring about a change by being a common person,” she says.
These three Mumbai girls have experienced different upbringing in their humble homes, but what connects the three is that they didn’t bow down to the circumstances, and have become initiators of change in their communities with education as their armour.