Shahbad Dairy in Delhi is an area populated mostly by daily wagers and migrant workers, where the focus is always on survival. In this grim reality, a 14-year-old girl is leading the fight for children’s education, breaking gender stereotypes and societal norms along the way.
A couple of years ago, a few women discussing a 14-year-old girl’s impending marriage at the community water pump in Delhi’s Shahbad Dairy area were told off by a 12-year-old girl who overheard the conversation. “Don’t you know child marriage is against the law? I will report you to the police,” Tannu warned angrily. Not only did she stop the marriage from taking place, she even ensured that the girl went back to school.
This was two years ago. Tannu today is 14 years old, more mature and calmer, but her steely determination remains intact. She continues to challenge stereotypes, and in doing so, is slowly and gradually changing the mindsets of people in her locality.
Tannu is one of the many children who are part of the CRY supported project Saksham in Delhi’s Shahbad Dairy area. A backward area populated mostly by daily wagers and migrant workers, the focus here has always been on survival rather than education for children. The patriarchal mindset is also rampant, relegating women and girls to the role of housemakers. Though Tannu grew up in Shahbad Dairy, she was fortunate to have parents who encouraged her to dream big, and never let tradition and gender come in the way.
“I am very lucky to have such supportive parents. They always taught me to stand up for what is right, and let me do whatever I wanted to. Not many children in my locality get this kind of support from their parents, and this very thought encourages me to do something for the betterment of others,” says a beaming Tannu.
A few months ago, while coming back from school, Tannu noticed a few boys fighting amongst themselves. Fearing that the fight would escalate, she approached them and sorted out their fight. Later, on her way home, she struck a conversation with two boys from the group.
One boy said that he had never gone to school, like many of his friends, and the other one dropped out since he could not cope up with studies. Watching TV and playing games made up most their days now.
Tannu remembered her parents’ words about the importance of education, and felt very uncomfortable after the conversation. She felt a strong urge to do something for children who were not getting an opportunity to study. Tannu immediately gathered her friends, and together they decided to teach these children after school hours.
She says, “When we discussed our idea with CRY and Saksham members, they were instantly supportive, and also gave us space at the Centre for the classes. Since we all come to the Centre almost every day after school to either study or rehearse for activities, bringing these children here would open a different new world to them.”
Their first task was to get details of children, so the group of eight friends went around the locality and began identifying children who had never gone to school, or who had dropped out because of various reasons. They also came across many school-going children who were weak in a few subjects but could not afford to pay for tuition classes, and decided to take them in. Once they had the details in hand, the group’s next task was to go door to door and convince both the children as well as their parents about the importance of these classes.
“It was not easy explaining the importance of education to the elders. While a few parents shooed us away saying that there is no need for their children to go to school, there were many who patiently listened to us and promised to give it a thought,” says Tannu’s friend and group member Nindi.
It took a few weeks for the group to win the confidence of the parents, and by the end of it there were 25 children who were willing to learn from them.
“That was a day of mixed feelings for all of us. While we were excited that our plan would finally materialize, we were also extremely nervous. Since we had to put in a lot of effort to convince the parents, we could not afford to let them down,” says Tannu.
Thus these eight friends began a journey which turned out to be more enriching than they could have imagined.
Nindi continues, “We spent the first few days getting the children comfortable with us and the surroundings. We taught numbers and alphabets to those who had never gone to school, and age-specific courses to the ones who had dropped out. We often played word games, and conducted group activities and competitions to keep them interested in studies. Getting the children to concentrate and attend the classes regularly was a challenge we faced from time to time.”
Despite the many challenges, the group managed to conduct these classes for several months. Over time, the children also started showing a lot of interest in learning new things. Weak students managed to score better in their exams.
Meeting everyday and studying together also brought the children closer to each other. They started to share their personal lives, discuss their problems, or simply do fun things together.
“Over time, we became like a small family. The happiest day for us was when three students who had previously dropped out of school decided to continue their formal education and took admission in nearby schools. We celebrated that day by distributing sweets and watching a movie”, says Tannu proudly.
The other children meanwhile continued to do well, and many of them are also planning to start their schooling. The success of the initiative prompted CRY and Saksham to take it forward. Volunteers now visit the Centre every weekend to regularly teach out-of-school and school-going children. There has been a good response to these classes, with children from neighboring villages joining in as well.
“I am glad I could use my knowledge to help others. We were all overjoyed when our small initiative was made into a permanent activity at the Centre. So many children benefit from it now. This only encourages me to keep doing more such work,” says Tannu with a sense of responsibility that belies her age.
Tannu reveals that she wants to be a professional singer, and often breaks into song. She regularly takes part in local singing competitions, and has also won a few prizes for the same.
Tannu is currently studying in Standard X, and actively involved in the children’s collective at the center. The collective continues to empower children and spread awareness about child rights in the neighbourhood.