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“The girls from Tiljala SHED lost all three of their matches but they played their hearts out. They kept practising even during the break”

Rina lives in Topsia Canalside Squatter Community where 710 families live in illegal makeshift shelters beside a stinking open sewer.

Rina is 13 years old.  She is a member of Tiljala SHED’s newly formed girls’ football squad. Her father is a rickshaw puller who drinks and smokes most of his earnings.  Her mother supplements the family income by working as a domestic servant.  She earns just Rs1600 (£20 or $35) a month. Rina and her three siblings are malnourished and often go hungry.Rina’s mother wants more for her children: she ensures they attend school as she knows that education is their best hope for the future.  Rina also attends evening classes at Tiljala SHED’s community centre in Topsia. Beside the homework support and computer classes, Tiljala SHED is promoting sports for all the youngsters. We have no sports ground, no budget and no coaches – but we do have a wonderful crowd of 22 enthusiastic girls who want to play.And they made quite an impression at a recent tournament ….
Just before the World Cup final kicked off on Sunday, another tournament got underway in Kolkata: the  Kolkata Gives five-a-side inaugural GirlRising Football Championship.  And for those participants, vulnerable girls like Rina from across Kolkata, participation in this sport and this tournament can be life changing.

‘The organisers…were appreciative of the efforts of Tiljala SHED, the NGO that has just started practising football and still doesn’t have a coach “The girls from Tiljala SHED lost all three of their matches but they played their hearts out. They kept practising even during the break” ‘

This article was published on Monday in Kolkata’s Telegraph newspaper.  But look at the article on the left. Shockingly over 40% of girls in West Bengal are married off under the age of 18. Girls routinely drop out of education at puberty and are then married off as young as 14.  Babies then follow, one after the other, leading to poverty, poor health, extreme stress, and, tragically, domestic violence and abandonment.  These illiterate girls have very little power to change their lives.  Whilst we are working hard (and successfully) to give these married women & girls a second chance through business training and microloans, we are also working hard to keep their daughters safe and to help them remain in education and delay marriage.  Our greatest supporters for the young girls are their mothers – they do not want their daughters to suffer the same fate.

So how does football come into this?
The juxtaposition of these two articles is no accident.  The Kolkata Telegraph publishes hundreds of stories every year showing how sport is a redemptive force amongst impoverished and vulnerable young people, how sport transcends India’s highly stratified society.   Paul Walsh’s Khelo Rugby and his formidable team, the Jungle Crows, have been transforming the lives of the rural poor for many years.  Future Hope takes care of Kolkata’s street children –and at the heart of their rehabilitation lies sport.  Rugby, football, hockey, athletics bring together young people rich and poor, from NGOs and private schools alike.  Imagine how it feels to be part of a team trouncing the private school softies when you were born to believe you were nothing.

So it is for these girls. Or so it should be… when they have proper football boots, a coach, somewhere to train.

Tiljala SHED aims to keep all the children in the marginalised “rag picker” communities of central Kolkata in education.  They do this by running after school clubs in the heart of the communities.  The children get remedial help with schoolwork, they sing, they play games; they enjoy occasional excursions, computer classes and so on.  And where possible, they play sport.  Girls’ football is new (as you see from the article).  They have started with nothing – not even a team football shirt.  Tiljala SHED is a tiny NGO with a huge heart and runs on a shoestring. With your help we can give these girls the chance to run, to compete, to be part of a team and to have the strength to resist the pressure to drop out of education and to marry whilst they are still children.

They have the drive … can you help us give them the opportunity?

£8.70 or $13.60 a month covers the cost of one girl in the football team
£18 or $23 pays for the full kit for one girl
£620 or $870 pays for coaching for the whole team for a year
£550 or $725 covers all the drinks and snacks for a year for the whole team

Total cost of empowering 22 young women through fitness, teamwork and the joy of sport 
£2300  or  $3000 per year

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Delivering Food Parcels in Topsia

On a mission to deliver emergency food rations to one very needy family and two very vulnerable elderly women.
This was a difficult day.

First we went to Maya’s home – a shelter down a dark alley between the busy road and the sewage canal. Maya has no toilet facilities, no running water and no means of support other than begging and rag picking. She says she thinks she is about 75. Her husband died just four months ago. She has three daughters but they have their own families and she doesn’t see them – one occasionally visits and give her a hundred rupees or so. She used to do embroidery but her eyes are too weak now. She showed us her glasses which, she said, no longer work.

Then we crossed the road to see Loki. She is over 80 and lives in a space behind a larger building. We clambered through the dark over a high step and slippery mud to reach her. To collect water or use a toilet she has to cross the road. We asked if she has a ration card – she said without even the 2 rupees for subsidised rice she can’t access the benefit. Would she leave and go into an old age home? we asked (not sure if that is even possible). She said no – she wants to stay here with her memories of her husband. Recently she fell over and has hurt her leg – which makes it even more difficult to cross the road. Reminded that she would get free medical attention at the hospital, she said “How can I get to the hospital? I have no money”. She has two sons but they don’t help. I asked about the neighbours. Can they help? They have their own difficulties and their own families to worry about, my colleagues tell me. Because the water is only on for a few hours a day, there is a lot of conflict over access.

Finally we visit Sakina’s shelter. She has four children. There were two teenage girls and their small brother at home. The boy was clearly very unwell and wrapped in a blanket. The girls explain that their mother is out selling aloo chat (spiced potatoes). She will earn about 50p a day. Her husband is dead and she is desperate as she cannot earn enough to feed the family. How terrible she must have felt leaving her little boy at home sick while she went out to work. I hope she was pleased to find the food parcel when she got home. Maybe she can take a few days off.
I don’t know what to say. Life is so cruel here that compassion seems to be absent. I hear myself suggesting that we encourage the young people from the after school coaching classes to get involved. Good idea, say my colleagues brightly… The rations we delivered today were welcome but solve just a small part of the wider problem. I didn’t expect huge smiles of gratitude – and we didn’t get them. Despair squats in every shelter we visit.

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Visiting the Park Circus Children’s Club

I don’t know where to begin. I have been visiting Tiljala SHED for 5 years and thought I couldn’t be surprised by anything. Yesterday I was invited to attend school. Local children from the Park Circus Railway Squatters (mostly the children of ragpickers) attend our community centre 5 days a week. This group attends government schools in the afternoon so their supplementary/remedial classes are in the morning. Well – I assumed this was mostly a babysitting exercise. Games, songs and a safe place whilst parents are working. But no.

It was a Bengali lesson when I arrived. 26 children lined up according to their school class. The year ones at the front and 5s at the back. Mehnaz the teacher, a girl from the community herself and a qualified teacher, was handling all groups at once. Letter recognition for the year 1s and 2s up to full story telling for the 5s. Every child engaged and working. This is skilled teaching and she was clearly fully in command. We had a short interlude for Jane to do some English with the children – colours, numbers, days of the week, months of the year, greetings – they knew it all. And then showed off their English with some songs/actions. Maths followed. Older kids doing proper arithmetic whilst the little ones were forming numbers in both English and Bengali (humbling). An engaging discussion with the children about water – and not wasting it. None of them lives in a home with running water: every drop needs to be collected from a standpipe the other side of the railway which only flows twice a day. Then they discussed plastic waste and how to avoid single-use plastic (whilst I hastily decanted the sweets I had bought them from an incriminating plastic bag to my virtue-signalling Waitrose nylon pocket bag). I did wonder how they squared all this with the fact that their family incomes mostly derive from the collection, sorting and sale of discarded single-use plastic, but if it did come up I wasn’t aware. Then it was time to go – off to proper school (where class sizes can be over 100).

Maths sessions.

Very moved by the whole experience. Tiljala SHED calls itself grassroots – and now I really know what this means.  The founders and staff are of this community. Those who do manage to survive this very traditional community’s pressure to marry (for the girls) and drop out to work (for the boys) are committed to helping more to access opportunity through education.

Exercises and meditation before going off to proper school.

When the morning session finishes, Mehnaz doesn’t slope off for a much-deserved rest before the next session: she visits the homes of the children who haven’t attended in the morning. She wants to check all is OK and encourage them to come along tomorrow. And she earns Rs5000 (just over £50) a month for this.  With the various groups in the afternoon, 122 children pass through this centre every single weekday. Tiljala SHED runs 5 such centres, all of them in the most deprived parts of central Kolkata, populated by the ultra-poor, rag pickers living in illegal shelters. Homeless really.
Funds are desperately needed to keep this vital programme running. Please message me if you are in Kolkata and can help. In UK/US/EU/Aus you can donate online. Rs1000/USD15 a month keeps a child in education (and more).

Mehnaz teaches bengali.