Early childhood (from birth to 6 years old) is the most important stage of a child’s life.
Haleema’s life is an inspiring story of a girl’s determination to have an identity for herself despite all odds. Belonging to an extremely poor family, she was born without hands. That hasn’t stopped her from dreaming big and overcoming all the challenges as she continues her relentless pursuit of education. I met her during a seminar organized by CARE India in June 2016 to get feedback from students impacted by its Girls Education Program (GEP). I was struck by the determination on Haleema’s face as she voiced her opinion on various issues and challenges that girls face and how they can overcome them. After the seminar, she was gracious enough to tell me her life story:
UTTAR PRADESH, INDIA – I am a 16-year-old girl from Kaserwa village, an extremely backward village. The majority of the population is Muslim, and most of the families are very poor and have to struggle for their meals. There is a primary school in the village, but because awareness of education is very low, it hardly serves any purpose.
My father was an extremely poor, illiterate, landless laborer who toiled day and night in the fields of a rich farmer. I have four brothers – two elder and two younger. My mother is also illiterate and managed our large family as best as she possibly could. Still, with an exploitative landlord and no steady income, we never had the luxury of having three meals a day.
I was born without hands. The birth of a girl with such an apparent disability was nothing less than a disaster for my family. For as long as I can remember, I was looked down on by everybody as a matter of sympathy. My mother loves me a lot, but she was always (and still is) concerned about my marriage and future life.
From the very beginning, I tried not to be a burden on others. I slowly learned to use my legs for performing household chores so that I could be of some help to my mother. In spite of being born in a village with hardly any awareness of education, I somehow had a very strong desire to go to school. After repeated requests, my parents, though quite hesitant, finally agreed to let me go to school. On the first day, my father took me to the government primary school in our village. However, the head teacher refused to grant me admission on the grounds that I was a handicapped girl with no hands and would therefore not be able to write.
I remember weeping for days at the rejection. But gradually, I began looking at it as a challenge and began to learn writing with my two feet – all by myself. I would borrow books from kids in the neighborhood and gradually learned to read and write Hindi alphabets. Still, I began to lose hope of ever having the opportunity to attend school.
‘Mad with joy’ on returning to school
In June 2007, some teachers from the government’s KGBV program visited our village in search of out-of-school girls. KGBVs are residential upper primary schools located in educationally backward blocks of the country that are designed to ensure that quality education is feasible and accessible to girls in disadvantaged groups of society.
KGBV teachers organized a motivation camp for parents and children of the village to encourage them to join the program. I went to the camp hesitantly, because I was scared of being rejected again. But with my persistence and the teachers’ support, I was admitted and began studying in the Bridge Course, CARE’s accelerated learning program – in collaboration with the Patsy Collins Trust Fund Initiative – in which out-of-school girls get the opportunity to complete primary schooling in a six-month period and then get mainstreamed into upper primary grades.
Needless to say, I was mad with joy on gaining admission to the school. Though my initial days in class were a bit difficult, I slowly began to gain acceptance by students and teachers. The Bridge Course was a boon for me, as it allowed me to easily close the gap created by missing out on a formal primary-level education. I gradually grew in confidence and was selected as monitor of the school. The school also helped in developing life skills and I was able to learn sewing and embroidery – using my legs. During my three-year stay in school, from 2007 to 2010, I was not treated like a person born with a disability, but with equal respect and dignity.
KGBV and CARE kept on providing support and motivation to me, but my financial difficulties continued to haunt me. I passed intermediate exams with impressive grades in 2014, but I was not in a financial condition to pursue college. My father was suffering from cancer, and what little savings we had were spent on his treatment. He passed away in November 2015, after a prolonged illness. I was again glaring at a dark road ahead, with no possibility of being able to continue my education.
But my life took another turn when I was invited to attend the KGBV alumni meeting at Shahpur in September 2015. The story of my life somehow caught the attention of the media, and the coverage in print and television media made a huge impact. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh invited me to his residence in June 2016. Impressed by my willpower, he asked me if I had any wish that he could help fulfill. I answered that government should do something to help development in my village, which has almost no infrastructure. He immediately agreed and approved inclusion of my village under a government program designed to turn poor communities into “smart, sustainable villages.”
Meanwhile, I was admitted to study law in the nearby city of Muzaffarnagar, and my tuition fees were waived. Recently, the District Magistrate of Muzaffarnagar called me in to his office to offer me the job of teacher in one of the KGBVs. I politely refused, as I want to first pursue my higher education and become a lawyer.
Haleema concludes her conversation with me saying that the support of the government’s KGBV program and CARE’s Girls Education Program made a huge difference in her life. She walks off with a confident smile on her face, and I am left amazed at the journey of this girl who, in spite of being born with unimaginable disadvantages, continues to dream big and fly high.