Thursday, August 18, 2011

Turning point

How empowerment of a girl help change the fortunes of her family which used to be on the verge of poverty

Angela Walker

There were times when Noorjahan Mansoori Khan's family didn't eat for three or four days at a stretch. Her father, Bhurelal Mansori Khan, sold his family's small plot of land in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state with almost 200 million inhabitants, to move to try and change the family's fortune.
But earning Rs 50-60 a day as a day labourer was often not enough to feed his family of nine, including seven children. Some days Khan couldn't find work. Noorjahan's mother, Khairo Nishan, supplements the family's income by rolling beedi cigarettes. But for every 1,000 beedies she rolls, she is paid only 30 rupees.The family's luck changed when Noorjahan, 17, attended a community mobilization meeting with some of her sibling.

Helping communities help themselves
The meeting in Noorjahan's neighborhood was organized by the iLEAD vocational institute to find suitable candidate for training. The institute is a joint effort between Aide et Action and UNICEF to enhance employment opportunities for marginalized youth through skill development and livelihood education.
Funding for the training is provided by IKEA Foundation, which began supporting work on child right in 100 mohallas, slums, in Moradabad in 2009.
Each class of about 100 young people are selected based on a series of risk factor including whether they have a disability, are from a slum community, or a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe. About two third of them complete each course and get a job. Each candidate is given an aptitude test to judge whether they would best fit in service, computing or welding sector.
Noorjahan met many of the criteria and stood out from the crowd immediately. "I saw a will in her that she wanted to do something," Mahesh Chandra, one of the teachers, says of Noorjahan, who was forced to drop out of school after class eight. "She herself come up and said: I want to study further. How can you help me do that?"
Noorjahan's parents though needed to be convinced. "Her mother was very afraid: She's a girl and cannot go out alone," Chandra recalls. "So we said: Look at the life you have been leading so far. Is this the life you want for your daughter?"
In this conservative society, women are expected to remain at home, explains Nupur Pande, Child Protection Officer in the UNICEF Uttar Pradesh office.
"Men are out in troupes on construction jobs or looking for work or at vending stalls," Pande says. "We must empower women, because they have to become decision-makers." They are at home, and they are teaching children.

Girls face obstacles
The Khan family lives in one of the 342 mohallas that dot the city of Moradabd, where nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. Their home is without electricity or toilet facilities. An open girl emits a murky, dim light from the open sky above.
Khan attended school up to the tenth grade and realize the value of getting education. "But when money is tight, I am not able to make the children's school fees. Whatever I used to earn, I would pay for her schooling," he explains. "Fifty or sixty rupees a day is just not enough. I thought if she could go to the training centre she could get a job."
The situation in India is particularly grim for girls, who are considered paraya dhan or property of the family into which they will marry. Hence girls' education may often not be valued as it is seen as an investment whose return will be reaped by another family.

Resisting pressure to drop out
Noorjahan is a beautiful girl with delicate features, her long wavy hair clasped in a pony tail atop her head. She wears a flowered dress and a silver hoop glint from her nostril. She wrings her hands nervously as she speaks about the torment the men in her community are putting her through.
"They trouble me a lot when I go to work and ask me where I am going. The neighbors who are living around here make my life miserable when I am going out of the house," she says. "It hurts me. I feel a lot when I listen to all this, but I know who I am, and I will continue to go out and work. For myself, I am doing it to stand on my own feet. For my family, I want to help my father all my life."
Her parents decide to ignore the neighbours disparaging their daughter's character as the 2,000 rupees Noorjahan makes help lift the family out of abject poverty.
"I feel bad, I feel sad, and I feel angry," her mother says. "I know my daughter. I have full confidence in her, and I know that she is not how they are saying she is."
Noorjahan was one of the six trainees who were tried out at shipping document company KK Gupta and Associates, but only she was offered a fulltime position. The company believes that the vocational program allows young people to develop contemporary business skills, especially computer literacy.
But her co-worker weren't always so kind, teasing her about her weak English. The pressure finally got to her, and she dropped out. However, rather then falling through the cracks, UNICEF intervened, negotiating that Noorjahan would sharpen her skills at the vocational training centre each morning before continuing on to work.
(Angela Walker is Chief of Communication, UNICEF India)

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