Saika is 17 years old and lives in a a shelter beside the open sewers of Topsia in Kolkata. She lives with her father, who is a street vendor selling puffed rice and gram; her mother, a homemaker; a sister and brother. The family struggles to survive on her father’s tiny income. Yet all three children attend school and have real hopes for a better future.
I have long been impressed by Saika. She is a founder member of the marvellous Topsia Evening Class. Along with around 50 others she attends this class every weekday evening after school*. Here they receive additional academic support from Tiljala SHED’s tutors. They have an opportunity and the space to complete their homework. They are also part of a “Child Club” dedicated to child protection. It is important for youngsters in very deprived and illiterate communities like this to understand and to assert their rights: child labour and child marriage are common. This group now actively campaigns for children’s rights and have prevented child marriages within the community. They also rehearse and then perform street dramas highlighting child protection issues. They also have self defence lessons – an activity they all enjoy and skills that, sadly, they need.
Saika is a confident and outspoken girl who has taken this public role further. She fought on behalf of the whole community to receive food rations when India’s lockdown began. On Independence Day this year, she initiated a flag raising ceremony for the community and requested funding to be able to provide snacks. Last Tuesday 10th November when fire tore through 70 homes in Topsia, it was Saika who raised the alarm. And Saika and friends were in the forefront of the relief operation when Tiljala SHED’s staff were distributing food, tarpaulins and mosquito nets in the days that followed.
It was fortunate that Saika had been issued with a smartphone just the day before. These phones have been given to 20 members of the Topsia Evening Class to enable them to access their education online whilst the schools are closed. We had no idea that one of these phones would be used to save lives and homes.
Of all the young people in Topsia, Saika strikes me as being most likely and determined to change her story. She wants to be an airline pilot. But, being a girl, she faces huge cultural pressure to marry. Marriage would end her hopes of any serious career. She told me when I saw her in January that her mother wants to send her back to the family’s ancestral village to get married. So far Saika has resisted. Her very best chance lies in her education. We want to give every one of the young people in the Topsia Evening Class but it would be a particular tragedy to lose Saika. If I can find a sponsor for her, we can provide enough support to persuade her family to let her remain in school and go on to further education. And knowing she has been sponsored would give Saika a huge boost.
£30 a month would provide all the educational support Saika needs: books, stationery, travel expenses, extra tuition, shoes, uniform.