Beauty for ashes

Named after an inspirational women’s leader from the past, a slum in the Indian city of Patna is home today to a new band of girls who are being empowered by Viva to change their futures, as Fran Hall writes.

Dalit Noun: A member of the lowest caste in the traditional Indian caste system. Literal meaning: broken, scattered. From Sanskrit dalita, meaning: oppressed.

Members of the Dalit community are typically street sweepers and removers of human waste and, because of this, they are stigmatised across India, irrespective of religion.

They are part of the fifth caste, the caste for those seen as so ‘untouchable’ that they are not accepted in the fourth and lowest caste; they are quite literally ‘outcastes’. The least of this caste are the girls.

Photo: johnelbrando

Viva’s partner network in Patna, eastern India, works with Dalit girls in the Kamla Nehru Nagar slum. Through the girl child mentoring programme and life skills classes, young girls are learning about their innate value, gaining self-esteem, keeping safe from harm and thinking about future goals.

They are learning to have the same spirit as the namesake of the slum they call home – Kamala Nehru.

Allow me to take you back in history for a moment…

A trailblazer from the past

Rewind 120 years to when a baby girl was born in Delhi and named Kamala. She grew into a shy but graceful child and, although she may have been more privileged than most girls in our network programmes, her determination and bravery was not dissimilar.

With little formal education, Kamala was earmarked for marriage at 12 when she was chosen by her future husband. Kamala married at 17 but found herself unwelcome in her new family.

Slowly, she overcame this and, breaking all rules about what females could and couldn’t do, joined the fight for India’s independence.

Kamala invited groups of women into organised protests against the things she believed in. She ran a dispensary out of her own house to help those in need and became a popular role model for women all over India.

Indeed, her own daughter Indira would become the country’s first and only female Prime Minister.

Nowadays there are many educational institutions and medical organisations named after Kamala in India, as well as the Patna slum where you’ll find Viva’s partner network in action.

A modern day hero

Sixteen year-old Gloria lives in this community and has a steely determination to see girls succeed and reach their potential.

Much like Kamala, when younger, Gloria was shy and withdrawn owing to traumatic circumstances in her past; her mother and father had died when she was still very young and she moved to live with relatives who couldn’t give her the care she needed.

Ultimately she was sent to a children’s home.

Photo: Patricia Andrews

Fast-forward to 2019 and Gloria has graduated from the network’s Dare to be Different programme a more confident and self-assured young woman.

Following this, Gloria has taken the initiative and approached the network coordinator, Mukund Singh, to ask if she can give life skills training to 25 young Dalit girls in the area.

Gloria is hopeful that she can be a positive role model to the group of girls so they become everything their Dalit title declares they cannot be.

As well as this, girls who have graduated the mentoring programme have formed 30 Girls Safety Groups in three areas of Patna. By reaching out to their trusted Viva partner network, just like Gloria, Girls Safety Groups have received extra training on topics such as nutrition, anaemia and handwashing and are educating their families on the same.

They also regularly bring matters of importance to the attention of community elders.

A future prime minister in our midst?

What if these girls, referred to in terms used to describe the dead, were empowered to bring about change, to advocate for themselves? What kind of legacy could they leave?

It’s the training and mentoring from our partner network programmes that is empowering young girls such as Gloria.

Could she be as brave and heroic as Kamala Nehru? She already is.

Top banner photo: Trent McBride