Sara Fatima was forced to drop out of school at 13. Today, the brave young woman is working hard to ensure her sister does not suffer a similar fate.
Twenty-one-year-old Sara Fatima is a resident of Mysuru and has been in the city all her life. She lives with her parents, a younger sister and her paternal grandmother, in the Shanthinagar slum cluster of the city. There are 8,843 such slum clusters in her city; she and her family are a part of the 4.24% of the population that lives in slums, shorn of the most basic of necessities.
Sara lives with her family of five in a one-room house, whose monthly rent is Rs. 3,000.
Most people in her locality work as labourers in garment factories or are vegetable hawkers. Women and children are mostly employed in the household business of rolling beedis.
Although Sara feels at home here, the colony comes with its own share of problems. “We get drinking water on alternate days in a week, and the supply lasts for not more than three hours,” she says. “In summers, the water shortage is nothing less than a crisis. Lack of electricity adds to our difficulties.” There is also no regular process of garbage disposal, exposing the locals to a host of diseases.
Additionally, Shanthinagar is also home to deep-rooted patriarchy and myopic mindsets. Women in the community are discouraged from earning a living and are instead married off at an early age.
“When girls in my community go out and work, it is considered to be a matter of shame,” says Sara. “Although most of them attend school, they are not allowed to study beyond the tenth grade, and are instructed to take up household responsibilities instead.”
Closer home, Sara’s family continues to battle long-standing health and well-being issues.
Long before she was born, Sara’s father severely injured his leg in a road accident and had to have an intramedullary rod inserted in his leg.
Although the doctors instructed him to have it removed a few years later, the family didn’t have enough money to get the surgery done. The rod now causes him immense knee-pain, so much so, that it often gets difficult for him to walk.
“I hate seeing my father in such unbearable pain,” says Sara. “But we are helpless. The government hospitals don’t have the adequate equipment and we cannot afford expensive surgery.”
Her father now paints automotive parts for two-wheelers. But the job is far from regular – he only works when there is a demand. “On months when there is work, he makes Rs. 2,000. It is a painful situation to be; we all want him to recover, but we don’t have the means to do that or even the means to relieve him from working,” Sara explains.
Sara and her family of five survive on a little more than Rs 2,000 every month. And, sometimes, when her father gets no work, lesser than that too.
Her mother is just one among the several beedi workers in their colony. The women are provided with raw materials, instructed to do the job at their home and deliver the finished product at a local shop. She earns Rs. 700 a month, all of which is spent on Sara’s sister’s education, who is presently in the ninth grade at a government school.
The other somewhat steady income is the money that they receive by availing the government-provided Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme, but the entire sum of Rs. 500 is spent on the treatment of her grandmother’s prolonged gastritis.
In 2008, Sara had to drop out of school because her family could afford the education of only one daughter. She was merely 13 years old and in the eighth grade back then.
“Back then, I wasn’t upset because I didn’t think that quitting my education was a big deal; I had never valued it,” she says. “It took me a couple of years to realize that my life was utterly meaningless. Besides helping my mother with a little household work, I used to be at home all day and do absolutely nothing.”
When Sara turned 18 in 2013, she decided to bring about a change in her life. With the little savings they had, she registered herself in a 3-year long Urdu diploma course, as she’d always taken a keen interest in the language. She also pursued two tailoring courses from the Umad Polytechnic Institution, over a span of one year. It cost her Rs. 700.
When asked why she didn’t spend the same savings on her education in school instead, she said:
“I thought it would be a selfish move. I can always study later, but by opting for the courses, I could make use of my skills and contribute to the income of my household at the time. Staying in school would’ve been relatively more expensive.”
The courses helped her learn the nuances of zarri work and hand embroidery, and she soon became involved in tailoring and helping meet the colony’s needs, earning a little over Rs. 100 every month, while doing so. She also provided Quran tuitions to seven children from neighbouring homes, earning Rs. 300 per month in the process.
But the turning point in her life came when she joined Magic Bus in November 2015. She learnt about the organisation from her old school.
The principal from her school recalled Sara’s economic plight and, through Sara’s sister, reached out to her. The latter promptly came to meet the Magic Bus volunteers who then convinced her about the importance of getting enrolled in the livelihoods programme.
Although her parents were hesitant at first, they eventually gave in and Sara joined the programme. She was given vocational training for three months, which helped better her speaking and writing skills. She was also taught to operate an Urdu software when the volunteers learnt about her fondness for the language.
She is now works as an office assistant, and her work includes writing articles on Magic Bus workshops, preparing reports and interacting with other volunteers on a daily basis. She earns Rs. 5,000 a month.
“The people here treat me with respect and as one of their own,” says Sara. “I am given an opportunity to learn something new every day. It’s like I’ve started my life all over again.”
Even then, her monthly family income barely manages to cross Rs. 8,000, against an average monthly expenditure of Rs. 10,000. It is a constant struggle to afford their basic needs. But financial constraints are not the only problems in Sara’s life.
“Even though my parents’ attitude towards my job has considerably improved, they’d still rather have me at home,” she says. “Even to this day, my parents feel that I should get married and settle down. But I’ve vowed that that will never happen until I’ve helped my sister complete her education.”
There is a silver lining, however. For the first time in her life, Sara feels independent and happy.
“Magic Bus has helped me in ways I cannot express. Besides providing me with a steady job, it has helped me overcome my anxiety and become a confident person,” she smiles, “A few months ago, I had never even seen a computer; now, I am able to effortlessly work on one, that too daily!”
Even in the face of ongoing struggles, Sara has learnt to never let go of her optimism. She has high aspirations for the future. “I think people need not give up on their education, even after their circumstances might have forced them to do so. I plan to save as much money as I can and take up correspondence courses and complete my education. Furthermore, I want my father to be relieved of his pain, and I never want my sister to compromise with her dreams,” she says with a smile.
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