© Sara Cameron Links | Terms and conditions
Originally produced for UNICEF
My parents found a husband for me when I was 18 and that was when I moved in to Bargai. It was 1987, and the atmosphere of Bargai was more like a village than an urban slum. People were mostly Moslem like ourselves and had lived there for generations. Some, like my father-in-law, were very strict and believed that women belonged in the home., We began to clash almost immediately though I never looked for a confrontation and always tried to be a good daughter-in-law.
My own parents had been more liberal and I had been educated to Grade 8 at school. I was also glad to find that my husband's temperament matched with mine. In 1988, after I gave birth to a daughter, he helped me to open a small school.
I went around the community and found 81 children who needed an education. I had no money and no place to teach, but I negotiated with a neighbour who allowed me to use a small room he owned in exchange for teaching his two children. Most of the other children paid Rs. 25 per month (about US 50 cents) but a few came for free. I called it the Amani (Peace) Children's Academy.
My father-in-law said that what I was doing was against the Moslem religion. He said that I was acting like a Christian since they are the ones who gather children together to teach. He criticized my husband for giving me too much freedom and said that since we were not contributing to the house hold we could not have any food from the kitchen. For a long time we ate only sattu which is a ground pulse, the food of the poor.
Meanwhile the school was growing and in 1995, two people came from the Ranchi Regional Development Authority to ask if I would like to convert the school into an official non-formal education establishment. My husband and I agreed and happily told the parents that they would not have to pay fees anymore because the government would be supporting us. Seven months later, the government funding disappeared. We couldn't go back on our word to the parents and eventually my school collapsed.
Towards the end of 1995, the Urban Basic Services programme supported by the Government and UNICEF got underway in the Ranchi slums. Dr Iqbal, the project officer, asked me to be part of the project, and to attend a 6-day residential training course. It is very irregular for any woman in my community to stay away from her husband and family, but my husband agreed that this would be a valuable experience. Every evening during the training he came to see me, to support and encourage me. But my father-in-law told my husband that he should divorce me for staying outside the home. When I returned the Moslem religious community called a meeting to investigate me. They wanted to know where I had been, who with, what I had done and where I had slept. My father-in-law wanted to condemn me but they found no evidence of wrong-doing because my husband had given his support. My father-in-law said he could no longer share a house with us. He abandoned the family leaving no contact information.
I began working in the community, encouraging the women to form self help groups. The news spread like wildfire, that the mahila mandal could help families escape from the moneylenders. I began attending Task Force meetings at the Ranchi urban district offices and won a lot of respect from people in Bargai because I participated on their behalf with government officials. I helped to bring construction projects, for roads and the community centre, to the women's groups. We transformed many peoples' lives.
Yet I also became aware of some irregularities in the way some things were done. I was offered bribes to look away when some dishonest transactions were happening. I fought back against these and was almost arrested by the police on false charges created by a corrupt government official who had connections to powerful people. When the women in the mahila mandal heard what was happening they all came to my aid. "If Kushnuma is to be arrested, then we shall all be arrested," they protested. Eventually, the Deputy Development Commissioner himself stepped in and I was spared.
When I started my school I could see that the children in Bargai had so much promise. All they needed was a chance to get an education. Now many more girls and boys are going to school and the women of the mahila mandal are filled with confidence.
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