By Aparna Gupta:
“Kids are celebrating Holi here. I will call you back once it gets over”, she shouted excitedly, her voice was drowned by the boisterous laughter and music coming from the other end of the phone.
“Your students surely like you”, I asked, once the celebration mood settled down and Neni was at a quieter place. “Oh yes, I am their favourite! There was no escaping from their colours (and love) today”, exclaimed Neni.
Neni is currently pursuing her M.A. in Hindi, and is a teacher and a hostel warden at Sucheta Kriplani Shiksha Niketan (SKSN Institiute). She wants to become a college professor one day. After securing a brilliant score of 81% in her B.Ed examinations, she firmly believes that she can do anything she sets her eyes on. But, this 24 year-old vivacious girl was not always brimming with this confidence.
Born into a poor family of agriculturalists, in the dusty village of Sathin approximately 60 km. from Jodhpur, Neni contracted polio at the age of 3. Even after numerous visits to doctors and multiple operations, things did not brighten up for little Neni. The struggles continued unabated as her father passed away when she was just a toddler, leaving her mother to fend for herself and her four children. Despite all odds, Neni’s mother, Bau Devi, ensured that her bright daughter went to school. While many in the village considered it absurd for a differently-abled girl to get an education – and we are talking about that part of India where being differently-abled is still considered to be a god’s curse – Neni’s schooling continued undeterred, making her the only educated member of the family. At the age of 16, she went to SKSN as a student, and that changed her life.
“School didn’t have a meaning for me till I came to SKSN. In my village, I had never discovered my strengths – my ambitions, my dreams. It was for the first time that I realised that there were many more people who were like me, and I was good at something. It was for the first time that I had ambitions. And, I also knew that I could achieve anything if I put my heart to it.” says Neni.
Neni’s journey, from ridicule, neglect, and discrimination to confidence, independence, and daring is the journey of many young children who are differently-abled and have been empowered by education at SKSN Institute. In a country, where the government is struggling to implement its own policies of inclusive education, here is a small school on the outskirts of Jodhpur that started off as a residential school for boys who were differently-abled, and today it proudly hosts children of both the sexes.
Not only are these kids writing their own destinies, but are also turning the tables around by catalysing the empowerment of their communities and villages through the different initiatives implemented by Indiability Foundation, working in partnership with SKSN. For instance, the IMAGE (Indian Mixed Abilities Group Events) project brings village children into a sport for the social change programme, where the differently-abled students of SKSN deliver valuable knowledge about health and education activities to nurture their social inclusion into the mainstream society.
One of their projects, in which Neni is involved, that particularly interested me is the ‘1000 Loos’ campaign. Today, when the enlightened policy makers have jumped onto the band wagon of Swaccha Bharat, with the government rushing to meet the targets for building toilets, the real brunt of the problem is understood by these kids.
“If you wish to understand open-defecation, ask a child with bilateral paralysis how it feels to go 2.5 kilometres away on a rainy night to relieve oneself. Especially in this part of Rajasthan, where the dingy, dusty, inaccessible streets make wheel chairs meaningless,” says Ms. Sneh Gupta, President & Executive Director of Indiability Foundation and SKSN.
For these kids and the staff at SKSN, open defecation is not just a fancy word. It is an intrinsic part of their continuous battle against disability; against Polio, diarrhoea, hepatitis, and stunting. But then, in these conditions of grinding poverty, sanitation is a luxury. Therefore, through the ‘1000 Loos Campaign’, Neni and her passionate colleagues aim to build a thousand water-free toilets in a thousand villages, along with kickstarting health education campaigns for better hygiene and sanitation. These young women at SKSN, armed with education and self confidence, go back to the villages and persuade the villagers to adopt hygienic practices, such as washing hands with soap, eliminating open defecation and promoting sanitation.
“Isn’t it both amazing and shameful for the government that our differently-abled children, who are at the bottom most rung of the social ladder, and the last on the priorities of those in power, are going out and doing the job that the government of the day should have been doing?” proudly asks Sneh.
Neni is getting married at the end of this month. She told her future in-laws that she is not going to wear a ghaghra, not going to put a ghoonghat whilst at home, and she is going to continue working after the wedding. “I am going to live my life on my terms”, she says assertively.
In a remote village in the state of Rajasthan, where the power dynamics are visibly tilted against women, this young differently-abled lady has the guts to take control of her own life.
“That is what education does. It gives you the courage to conquer everything”, asserts Sneh.
This was originally published here.