TBI Blogs: An Organization in TN Is Empowering Youth to Break the Barriers Imposed by Caste

Marginalised communities in Tamil Nadu are getting the chance to build a better life for themselves, thanks to the NGO, Manithan, and its commitment to ensure empowerment through education. 

“It was the Parent-Teacher Association who approached the school headmaster on my behalf and requested that I be made a teacher at the school. I have just completed by Class 11. No one gets to become a teacher just like that, especially at a government school! But it all started when I began working at Manitham’s Child Resource Centre (CRC), a little less than three years ago,” said Maheshwari, a mentor with Manitham.

Manitham is a non-profit located on the outskirts of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. The organisation is working to make education more accessible to students in a community where one’s caste still governs the seemingly archaic rules of purity and pollution.

It is 2016 and yet, there are many pockets of India, such as the ones in Manamadurai (which is where Manitham runs its projects in 15 villages of the Sivagangai district), where children are still first generation learners! What’s more, the fight for the right to education has not gotten any easier.

From ‘stories’ of Sumangali Thittam (where Sumangali means ‘married girl’ and Thittam means ‘scheme’) – a form of child labour and soft trafficking where young girls are sent to cotton mills as labourers for a contract period of three to five years in return for which she – or rather her family – is promised a lump sum amount that goes towards her dowry; to stories of caste segregation within village communities for access to basic utilities such as water… these are the everyday realities of a significant number of people who are considered inferior, simply because of their caste.

In spite of it all, the situation isn’t as bleak or grave as it apprears, thanks to the other ‘stories’ that are making the rounds – stories of invincibility and resoluteness, like those of Manitham’s mentors.

Mentors at Manitham's Child Resource Centres

Manitham Mentors – Maheshwari and Sharath Kumar

In order to realise its focus on improving learning outcomes of students by providing them with individual attention, Manitham runs an after-school support project – also known as the Child Resource Centre – for students from the most vulnerable sections of our society.

Mentors are the village level youth who are entrusted with the responsibility of operationalising the CRC from an end-to-end perspective.

Meet Maheshwari

Maheshwari is one such mentor at the Periyakottai village where Manitham works.

Talking about her journey over the last three years, she said:

“I could not study beyond Class 11 due to the socio-economic condition of our family. I am not qualified neither do I have any experience of working, let alone teaching. My sister would tutor children at home and, after she got married, I briefly took over, but gave it up when I got married soon after. But the PTA had observed that with me as a mentor at the CRC in this village, not just the grades but even the behaviour of the students had begun to change for the better. So the PTA did not relent until the headmaster complied and obtained special permission to allow me to teach at the government-run school. I am also the mother of a three-year-old and being away through out the day took me away from my child, so I have reduced the number of hours I teach at the school.”

Today, Maheshwari is a class teacher to students of Class 3 and is going to attempt the Class 12 exams in the following academic year. She is realistic in that she does not know what the future holds but not too long ago, she realised that she could begin to right a few things for herself, her family and her community and she has not looked back since!

And meet Sharath Kumar

Sharath Kumar, also a CRC mentor, belongs to the nomadic tribe of street circus performers who have been living a settled life for the past fifty years in Manamadurai.

Although the community is no longer nomadic, many of them still perform. Children often accompany their parents to beg for food and money at the end of the show; this takes them away from attending regular school.

The community is forced to resort to this since they do not have an alternative means to livelihood and are yet to be completely integrated with the ‘mainstream’ owing to the difference in their way of living, appearance and language (which, owing to their nomadic ways in the past, is a mix of Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Telugu, Tamil and Oriya.) As a consequence, education is as alien to these children as walking the tightrope would be for anyone who does not belong to this community.

Sharath Kumar began his journey with Manitham when he joined the CRC as a student while in Class 9. After completing Class 12, he was keen on further pursing his education and, with guidance from Manitham, he is currently a student of Electronics at a nearby government-run Industrial Training Institute (ITI).

But his ‘story’ does not end here.

Sharath is also a mentor for the CRC of his village. As the second person in his 139-family village to have continued education beyond Class 12, he is also a role model to his students.

Today, he does not perform at any of the street-circus events that members of his community may perform at.

And this shift is immense, not just at the level of an individual, but also for the entire community as a whole as they collaboratively pave the way into the future for themselves and, most importantly, for their children.

Students at one of Manitham's Child Resource Centres in the Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu

Students at one of Manitham’s Child Resource Centres in the Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu

Manitham has 15 such inspiring youth leaders, each with a story that humbles you a little more.

This post was written in collaboration with Travel TickerElita is a freelancer and tweets @NomadicThunker 

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