| Antonio Pampliega |
Varanasi, India (dpa) – She struggles. You can see her frowning. Maths comes hard to her.
Aisha, a mother of four in India, is over 30 years old and had never learned to read and write.
Now, with the help of a Spanish charity, Seed for Change, she is doing it at last.
Aisha completes her exercise and is pleased with herself. It is a simple addition and subtraction exercise, but for her it is a major achievement.
“Before I never wanted to go to a hospital, because I did not understand the forms and sheets with information and I could not read signs on streets,” she says.
“I want to learn how to read and write so that nobody can trick me. And to be able to feel proud of myself,” Aisha says.
Aisha lives in Varanasi, a city in eastern India with 300 officially listed slums and more than twice that figure in illegal ones. The city is among the country’s most impoverished. Illiteracy among its women runs at 80 per cent, according to a United Nations report.
Next to Aisha is 39-year-old Pyari Bibi. She is pregnant with her fourth child.
When she was young, Pyari never went to school because she had to work scavenging to help her needy family.
Pyari says she so desperately wants to learn to read and write that she does not mind having to be taught as if she were a little child.
“I come to class even if I feel ill … Now I understand what the signs on the street say,” she tells dpa.
Aisha and Pyari are two of the 25 women who make up the adult literacy group.
“That they are few comes from the fact that there is no economic incentive to learn to read. So many of them feel discouraged … There are others who don’t come because they have to work, or because it is hard for them to learn, and they feel ashamed,” explains Maria Bodelon, the Spaniard who founded Seed for Change.
The women read aloud. They are working together, sitting in a circle on the ground.
Next door, another 12 women in a group work silently. They draw and paint figures onto silk scarves which they later wash, iron and check to correct errors.
It is painstaking work that they carry out in suffocating heat. No one is allowed to open a window or turn a fan on, because the silk could be damaged.
The Marina Silk scarves project is now self-sustaining, three years after it began.
“The testing period lasted six months until we could produce a first batch good enough for sale,” Bodelon said. “When we started out it was very hard, because they did not even know how to hold a pen. They had to learn to draw lines and circles.”
She explains that the women work three-hour shifts and produce 200 scarves a month.
Bodelon said the women would like to work full days and that there are others who would like to join the project, but that Marina Silk cannot increase production until there is sufficient demand for the scarves.
Tens of thousands of Indians are drawn to Varanasi, which also a major tourist destination. The newcomers settle there into crowded slums that are unhygienic and ridden by poverty.
Tajkera, a Marina Silk employee, previously worked as a garbage scavenger. It was very hard work, unpleasant and badly paid.
She explains that her family earns the equivalent of 0.08 euros per kilogramme of paper collected, 0.13 for plastic and 0.33 for sanitary material such as discarded syringes and medical tubes.
When things go well, Tajkera’s family earns about 70 euros a month.
“It is important for them to have a set salary, stability, a schedule and holidays,” says Bodelon about the women at Seed for Change.
“I would like to leave the slum and go live in a brick building, but the lowest rent is 30 euros a month. Who can afford that?” says Baisun, another woman who formerly worked as a garbage scavenger earning no more than 15 euros a month.
Baisun lives with her husband and seven children. They pay four euros a month for the small plot of land on which they have built their fragile home. They steal electricity and get their water from a nearby well.
Their community is composed of about 65 families lumped together with the rubbish.
The women at Seed for Change are gaining self-esteem and confidence. They feel useful and when they are able to contribute more to family expenses, they also have more decision-making power. Some want to return to their villages and earn a living sewing.
“It is important for them to have a set salary, stability, a schedule and holidays,” says Bodelon.
Laltussi is the cook at Seed for Change.
Her husband is paralysed and cannot work. The couple is aware that they have no legal right to the land they live on and could be kicked out at any time.
Laltussi says that she has bought a plot of land near Calcutta and plans on returning there.
“I want to leave the slum so my son can have another life,” she says.
Laltussi and others like her are caught up in a vicious cycle of poverty that it is hard to break out of.
Although castes have officially been abolished in India, it is difficult for people from lower strata to ascend the social ladder.
Cristina Iglesias, in charge of children at Seed for Change, said that the NGO has about 150 children whom it sends to school.
However Iglesias explains that these children mostly are taught after the other kids have left for the day, because the parents of children in the main school intake don’t want them to mix with children from the rubbish dumps.
Evening falls and Aisha’s four children come home. The grandmother is preparing supper on a stove outside. Infants run naked among pieces of rusty iron and old pots and pans.
“This is why we work with women,” says Bodelon. “What is spent on them has a direct effect on the family.”
As supper is being prepared, Aisha and her children go over their schoolwork. Jasmin, 12, knows that she will have to study a great deal to become a lawyer. Perhaps, one day, she will achieve justice for herself.