Wednesday, September 28

Choosing to be independent despite odds: Bi Bi Sara Fatima

21-year-old Sara Fatima belongs to Mysore and has been in the city all her life. She lives with her parents, a younger sister and her paternal grandmother in Shanthinagar slum cluster of Mysore. There are 8,843 such slum clusters in her city; she and her family are a part of the 4.24% of the population who live in slums, shorn of the most basic of necessities.

This is Sara Fatima
Sara lives with her family of five in a one-room house, whose monthly rent is three thousand rupees. Most people in her locality work as labourers in garment factories or are vegetable hawkers. Women and children are mostly employed in household businesses of rolling bidis. Although she 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 no regular process of garbage disposal exposing the locals to a host of diseases.

But Shanthinagar also has its own share of some deep-rooted problems. Women in the community are discouraged from earning their own livelihoods; instead they are 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 remain fraught with some long standing issues around health and well-being.

Long before she was born, Sara’s father severely injured his leg in a road accident. He had 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. It now causes him immense knee-pain, so much so, it gets difficult for him to walk at times.

“I hate seeing my father in such unbearable pain,” says Sara, “We are helpless. The government hospitals don’t have the adequate equipment, and we cannot afford expensive surgery.”  His father now paints automotive parts for two-wheelers. But the job is far from regular - he only works when there is a demand for it

Sara's father at work
“On months when there is work he makes Rs. 2000. It is a painful situation to be – we all want him to recover but we don’t have the means to do that or relieve him from working at least,” she explains.
Sara and her family of five survive on a little more than Rs 2000 every month. And, sometimes, when there is no work for her father, even lesser than that.

Her mother is just one among the several beedi workers in their colony. The women are provided with the raw materials, instructed to do the job at their homes and deliver the finished products at a local shop. She earns seven hundred rupees on a monthly basis, 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 five hundred rupees is spent on the treatment of her grandmother’s prolonged gastritis.

Sara's mother making beedis
In 2008, Sara had to drop out from school because her family could afford the education of only one daughter. She was merely thirteen years old and in the eighth grade.

“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 eighteen 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 seven hundred rupees.

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 engaged herself in tailoring for the colony needs, earning a little more than a hundred rupees every month.  She also provided Quran tuitions to seven children from neighbouring homes, earning three hundred rupees in the process.

But the turning point in her life came when she joined Magic Bus in November 2015. She learnt about it from her old school. The principal from her school recalled Sara’s economic plight and through her sister reached out to Sara. She promptly came to meet the Magic Bus volunteers. The Magic Bus volunteers convinced her about the importance of getting enrolled in the Livelihoods programme. 

Although her parents were hesitant at first, they eventually gave in. 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 a paid staff member, earning five thousand rupees on a monthly basis.

“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.” She serves as an office assistant, often writing articles on the Magic Bus workshops, preparing reports and interacting with other volunteers on a daily basis. Even then, her monthly family income barely manages to cross eight thousand, against an average monthly expenditure of ten thousand. It is a constant struggle to afford their basic needs.

But it isn’t like only financial restraints constitute the 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 will never happen until I’ve helped my sister complete her education.”

There is a silver lining. For the first time in her life, Sara feels independent, self-willed, 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 back, I had never even seen a computer for myself; 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 never want my sister to compromise with her dreams.” she says, “Initially, I wished to be an Urdu teacher. But I now want to continue working with Magic Bus and make a difference in others’ life like they have done for me,” she signs off.

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