Education: Key to Freedom

Amitabh Singh

Mukti Volunteer Village Providing Solutions to Sonagachi Children Through Their After-School Programmes

Pulitzer Prize winning couple Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their book, ‘Half the Sky’, writes about brutality against women and girls as “one of the paramount human rights problems of this century.”

I remember the first time I entered the red light area of Sonagachi. The area began only a few lanes away from my grandfather’s house in old Calcutta, where I had spent many weekends as a child. Despite many years of close proximity to the sex trade, my parents had successfully kept me from any knowledge of it.

Though only one-mile radius in size, Sonagachi is home to ten thousand sex workers, making it one of Asia’s largest red light districts. While poverty drove many women to the area, others are trafficked in from neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh and Nepal.

I witnessed the real and dangerous struggles impoverished Indian women, especially women in Sonagachi faced. They and their children needed special attention.

I was confronted with a common request by the rescued sex slaves. “If you want to help, bring us free medical care. When we get sick, no hospital will see us. They even turn our children away. Can our children get education?”

The women looked for a response. Surely there was something that our team could do.

In April 2009, while serving on a hospital board where I had previously served as the CEO, I was back in Sonagachi to discuss the possibility of starting a medical clinic. A few visiting doctors from North America came along to see firsthand the area we hoped to serve.

We parked the van near Liberty Cinema Hall on Chittaranjan Avenue and we walked a few hundred paces to a narrow street where rickshaws vied with one another to enter the illicit roadways.

The mere fact that children lived and worked in this place appalled us. It shouted in the face of all that was prudent and lovely. Though prostitution is illegal, here in Sonagachi, nothing operated behind the scenes. It was an open market. By all appearances, the police and city officials seem to simply turn a blind eye to the city’s sex trade.

I have heard that out of an estimate of over ten thousand sex slaves, four thousand are children. Many are born into the trade and follow in the footsteps of their mothers. That’s not the worst of it. The women- young and old, are encouraged to have sex without protection. When they become pregnant, they abort their pregnancies using crude methods, right here in the recesses of the brothels. The few who have their babies bring them to live in the brothels.

“Mukti as an idea moved forward in 2013 when non-resident Indians joined hands with a group of professionals, teachers, educators, students, volunteers and development practitioners, with varying degrees of affiliation, toward the goal of providing freedom (mukti) through education”

By the year 2010, I was involved with a project designed to rescue women from the red light district. When we discussed the possibility with the Sonagachi women, we were surprised when they suggested the best way forward. “Help us to start a candle-making business,” the women implored. “If we can manage our own business, then perhaps we will earn enough money to take better care of our families.”

At this time, my family and I were living in White Rock, near Vancouver, Canada. Family, friends and donors came together to help us organise a Walkathon fundraiser. My brother, who was serving as Vice President at the Starbucks Head Office in Seattle, USA, drove over to support this effort. With the money raised, Sonagachi women bought the first round of wicks and wax, paid rent for the factory, and tried their hand at the trade. The business became an instant success. In one year’s time, the women were rated the third biggest candle makers in Kolkata.

A year later, I was in discussion with a number of non-resident Indians living in USA, UK, Australia and Canada who were doing extremely well and wanted to give back to our country. We talked about Sonagachi and our desire to free disadvantaged women and children from oppression and injustice so that they could fulfill their potential. A few of us would often ask this simple question, “Who would we be today if we were robbed of education?”

India offers Right to Education for children aged 6 to 14. It is good to see that we are setting aside a certain number of seats for disadvantaged children. However, there is also a common consensus among the experts that there is much work that remains to be done

• 2016 Annual Status of Education Report shows to us a learning crisis that we face.

• 57.5 percent in Grade III are notable to read Grade I level text.

• 72.3 percent in Grade III could not do a two-digit subtraction.

• 75.5 percent in Grade V could not read simple English sentences.(This number is virtually unchanged since 2009)

Mukti as an idea moved forward in 2013 when non-resident Indians joined hands with a group of professionals, teachers, educators, students, volunteers and development practitioners, with varying degrees of affiliation, toward the goal of providing freedom (mukti) through education. This global network of NRIs, professionals, high school and university students work together to help children find freedom (mukti) through education.

“At Mukti, we do not claim to have the solution to all the problems. However, we believe in being part of a solution. Much of our focus this year is to create better lesson plans and worksheets to help children in the Mukti Learning Centre”

Just this year, we have sixteen teachers volunteering with me in Canada. The present focus of Mukti Learning Centre is to test the assessment tools for Kindergarten to Class VI students. Plans to develop better assessment tools for higher grade are also in place. The assessment tools that have been developed will be tested among 200 children. With the help of Indian teachers and educators, improvement in what is offered in the after-school programme is also being put in place.

I am grateful to all Mukti volunteers, high school and university students who have come together to help us work with teachers to develop Math and English assessment tools, worksheets and lesson plans to help with the education of Indian children as the key to freedom (mukti).

The reality we face is that many children who start primary school are not able to complete it. Access to education remains problematic in some parts of the country. A student coming from a poor background or a daughter of a sex slave has nowhere to go to get additional help. Even where enrolment rates in the first year of school is high, many children fail to complete Class V. Dropout rate before completing Class VIII or those not finishing Class X adds to this problem.

At Mukti, we do not claim to have the solution to all the problems. However, we believe in being part of a solution. Much of our focus this year is to create better lesson plans and worksheets to help children in the Mukti Learning Centre. We want to provide food to the students in our after-school programme. We want to work with teachers, retired teachers and volunteers to help serve the children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As the current trend in education of disadvantaged children is focused towards integrating them to mainstream education, experts in India are giving it the much-needed attention. A wide range of educators have suggested that the most ideal situation would be to let children from disadvantaged backgrounds continue going to regular school. An after-school programme with one-on-one tutoring, food for a hungry child, assessment tools to identify the child’s specific problem in learning, engaging counselors and allowing volunteers to work with the child, are all steps that have been suggested. The goal of Mukti Learning Centre is to address the problem without putting the label of “slow learner” on a child.

In 2016, the HRD Ministry launched Vidyanjali – School Volunteer Programme, as an initiative to address an acute shortage of teachers and staff. Government schools across the country were encouraged to draft volunteers. Retired teachers and women, who serve as homemakers, were encouraged to offer help as this was started on a pilot basis across 2,200 government schools in 21 States.

According to the Indian Express (June 2016 edition), a senior ministry official was quoted as saying, “This will also afford an opportunity to the NRIs who are keen to give back to their home country in some way.”

As a child, I remember both my brother and I visited a school that was supported and named after my grandfather in Azamgarh. Our grandfather was living in Kolkata but wanted to give back to his village in Uttar Pradesh. My mother-in-law was a teacher. Till her untimely death, she enjoyed teaching children who came to her home in Baroda.

Likewise, the greatest joy my brother and I, as NRIs have, is to travel back to India each year. Besides visiting our mother in Kolkata and our relatives in Varanasi, we like to go and serve children in one of the places needing help.

Have you ever thought of volunteering in your city or in your town? Have you considered being a part of the Vidyanjali initiative in your area? I believe we all can play an important part to help a poor child living in our area of influence.

So, at Mukti, we encourage all of us to GIVE – Go. Invest. Volunteer. Educate.

Mukti Village (USA) and Mukti Volunteer Village (Canada) partners with professionals, teachers, students and volunteers to bring freedom to children of sex workers in India. Nonresident Indians living in North America founded the initiative in 2013 after witnessing first-hand the dire needs of these children in slums and red light districts across India.

Amitabh Singh is author of ‘Round Pizza in a Square Box’. He is a certified business coach, speaker and serves as an advisor and volunteer to Mukti Village (USA) and Mukti Volunteer Village (Canada)- He lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife and two daughters.