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Fighting For Child Rights And For Herself, Meet Fiza Yusuf Sheikh

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How do we measure merit and accomplishment? Why is the applause reserved only for the rank holders and successful students? Is academic success the only criteria of meritocracy?

When you meet the 17-year-old Fiza Yusuf Sheikh from Bhiwandi you realize how unjust the system of merit is that is often a product of privilege. This teenager has done commendable work in her community, from stopping child marriages to persuading parents to seek immunization for their children but has failed to crack the Secondary School Certification (SSC) exam.

Fiza may not have earned excellent grades in school, but she has an amazing grasp of the socio-economic issues in the community in which she lives. When it comes to the health and wellbeing of children and adolescent girls, Fiza is at the forefront and reaches out to the ones in need.

Fiza lives in Bhiwandi with her parents and has two brothers – one younger and one elder. Her two elder sisters are married and live in their matrimonial home.

Representational Image

Enrolled in a Marathi-medium school while her family didn’t speak Marathi hampered Fiza’s academic development

Fiza’s father Yusuf Sheikh is a chef who takes up cooking orders for weddings and parties. Since these events are normally undertaken after the monsoon season, Sheikh is left with no work for almost 4 to 5 months in a year.  Her mother, Shameem, has a job as a Community Organizer in Lokseva Samiti an NGO working in the slums of Bhiwandi on the issues such as health and education among other basic rights. Although Shameem’s job is not a permanent one, she gets her salary on a regular basis. She has shouldered the responsibility as the breadwinner of the family.

Fiza’s Efforts To Stop Child Marriage In Her Community

While in Class 10th, Fiza got to know about the impending marriage of three of her best friends- Bheema, Mitra, and Sharmila (names changed).  The news upset her to no end, and she decided to act.  When she went to meet her friends, they were sad and depressed. As they didn’t have the courage to speak with their parents, they requested Fiza to intervene; who was more than willing to step in.

She met Sharmila’s and Mitra’s parents and confronted them on the issue of the illegality of the proposed marriage of their daughter. In an attempt to change their mindset, she recounted the case of the child bride from the neighbourhood who had died while giving birth to a child. Sharmila’s parents had heard about the violence perpetrated on the young wives but they had not thought about those while marrying off their daughter so young. Mitra’s parents were aware of the law yet they had decided to dodge it. Eventually, the parents of the two decided to follow the wish of their daughters and postponed their wedding. Sharmila joined a vocational training course after Class 10th while Maitra sought admission in a junior college, and both have high regards for Fiza who had saved them from the adversity.

Fiza who was successful in preventing Sharmila’s and Mitra’s marriage, couldn’t convince Bheema’s parents as they went ahead with their plan. Fiza received an invitation to Bheema’s wedding but she stayed away from this illegal nuptial of a young girl.

Her Mother’s Impact On Her Life

Fiza has grown seeing her mother working diligently towards creating awareness in the community about immunization, health-sanitation, and education among other issues. Shameem, also made it a point to share her experiences with her daughter. Her lived experiences had a deep impression on Fiza as she embarked on her own mission to protect the rights of the children. And, in this journey, Fiza’s mother has not only been supportive but also quite involved.

Fiza observed that some of the parents in her neighbourhood didn’t care to vaccinate their children. She found out that they had many misconceptions like – ‘immunization makes one sick’, ‘it has harmful side effects’ and so on. Armed with the information she’d gotten from her mother, this young girl set out to dispel the myths surrounding the immunization program and succeeded in persuading many parents to get their children immunized. The Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) of the Bhiwandi Corporation and the ASHA worker from the area laud the work of Fiza. Both of the functionaries are responsible for the implementation of the immunization program in which Fiza played an important role in sensitizing the parents.

On the academic front, Fiza’s life, however, hasn’t been a smooth ride. Enrolled in a Marathi medium school, Fiza faced difficulties understanding the language as the language spoken in the Sheikh household was not Marathi. The language barrier hampered her academic development and she failed in two subjects – Math and Science in Class 10th. Her failure has brought down her confidence as she understands the importance of passing the board exams in securing a safe academic future. To do that, she needs additional support for the two subjects in which she had failed. But the family doesn’t have enough resources to seek tutoring for Fiza.

Knowing her daughter’s state of mind Shameem decided to intervene and enrolled her in karate class for building up her confidence. A local youth group runs these classes free of cost for the benefit of the Basti youngsters. In the beginning, Fiza was sceptical about the coaching but it helped her come out of the pessimism which had set in after the exam results. Shameem received a lot of flak for enrolling her daughter in a martial art class claiming ‘it’s against the traditions’. She remained firm on her decision and Fiza continued to take karate coaching which helped to boost her energy.

As a mother, I can’t really help my daughter in her education. But she’s a smart girl and she’ll not be dependent on anyone. She will find her calling one day and I am proud of her,” shares Shameem.

Representational Image

Fiza was able to dispel myths around immunization and get many parents to vaccinate their children.

Due to the lockdown, Fiza’s Karate training had also taken a back seat with everything else but in the meantime, she started working part-time as an assistant in a dental dispensary. Before appointing her, Dr Sanil Tandel (name changed) trained her on the Corona Protocol that the dispensaries have to follow. Today, she has become well aware of all the rules, follows them strictly, and educates the patients. She denies entry to anyone not wearing a mask and tries to maintain a safe distance of 3 feet between the patients waiting in the queue.

A Leader In The Neighborhood

The neighbours now call her Neta – a leader and she’s considered as the ‘go-to person’ for their health or individual issues. Fiza also addresses  Corona-related matters and educates them about the importance of personal protection gear such as masks, hand washing, and the need for keeping a safe distance.

Besides being a health educator and child rights advocate, Fiza is a budding beautician and an expert henna artist. She creates lampshades and decorative items from waste. She has uploaded videos of her henna designs and artefacts on social media platform – YouTube.

Now that Fiza has started earning, she would like to join a tuition class for clearing the two papers in which had failed. After achieving this goal and successfully completing her Class 12, she wishes to complete her graduation in the arts stream to prepare herself to earn a job in either the Health or Social sector.

Looking at the versatility and aptitude of Fiza, one wonders how do we measure merit? As time passes, the grades anyway become redundant. Till we try to find a balance between rote learning and talent, children like Fiza will find it difficult to fit in the current education system and would be deprived of opportunities.

This article has been written by Sujata Shirke and translated by Alka Gadgil from Maharashtra for Charkha Features.

All images used are representational.

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