Celebrating Life

Sandhiya goes against the tide to complete her 12th standard

Every day I would wake up at three in the morning and study until six. I then finished all the household chores and got ready for school. I walked to my school, which was three kilometers away. After school, I took care of the remaining housework, as my mother could not do much. I then studied until ten in the night,’’ says 17-year- old Sandhiya.

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This was 17-year-old Sandhiya’s grueling routine for the past year, leading up to her 12th grade examinations in March 2020. Being the only girl in the family, Sandhiya had to take on additional roles because of her parent’s illness. Finally, in July amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, she got the news that she had passed in her final exams.

While this may seem like an ordinary feat for many of us, for Sandhiya, and the girls in her colony this is quite an achievement. Apart from debilitating environmental factors that make the community unsafe for girls and women, Sandhiya also had to work through her own challenges at home.

Furthermore, it is not easy to stay motivated or continue an education where the dropout rate of children in school is very high. With many of her friends either eloping, getting married, or just quitting school, Sandhiya fought hard to go against the tide to complete her 12th grade.

Challenges on the home front and relocation

image 2Sandhiya’s family was among the 13,000 other families who relocated to Perumbakkam (a resettlement colony) after the Deluge in Chennai in 2015. The relocation to Perumbakkam, forced people to move from within the city of Chennai, to almost 30 kilometers away. Some folks had to do this in the middle of their child’s academic year, putting an additional burden on kids to continue attending school in the city, while staying nearly two hours away.

While Sandhiya joined a school in Perumbakkam itself, she lost touch with the friends she grew up with in the city. She has been living here since the past four years, in a small one-bedroom home with her parents and older brother. Her mother Vellankani (36) who was the sole breadwinner of the family, worked as a domestic worker before moving to Perumbakkam.

However, after three months of moving there, she met with an accident on her way back from work, breaking her hip in the process. Her injury put great strain on the family, as she was bedridden for more than six months. She lost her job and at present cannot take up any strenuous work. Sandhiya’s father Murugan (40) also has not been working since the past four years because of a medical condition.

To add to the family’s woes, Sandhiya’s older brother studied up to the 12th grade, but could not pursue a college degree because of the family’s economic condition. He now finds it difficult to get a good job, and mostly spends his time with other boys in the community, much to his mother’s worry. She says, “Since many of the boys here are school dropouts, have addictions, are part of gangs or rag girls on the streetI just fear that my son may get influenced and take up an addiction,’’ says Vellankani.  

The family’s only source of support is Vellankani’s brother, who helps them out every month with some ration. However, they mainly depend upon the ration provided through the Government Public distribution system to sustain their needs.

Living conditions in the resettlement colony

Although Perumbakkam provides a roof over their heads, the location isolates people from the city. Due to a lack of proper medical or health care facilities, fewer schools, and poor housing quality, the people of Perumbakkam face a plethora of issues. Many residents still do not have a basic proof of their residence to date.

The shift has also ensued a steady loss of jobs from having to travel more than two to three hours to the city in limited public transport, and private transport becoming unaffordable. Additionally, livelihood options in the areas surrounding this resettlement colony are meagre, with people now setting up small street businesses in order to survive.

Safety concerns for girls and women

According to a short study done by World Vision’s My City Initiative-Chennai, to understand the ‘’Safety of Women in Perumbakkam among adolescent girls and women’’, an average of 48 percent of the respondents felt unsafe in the community. Furthermore, 76 percent of women and adolescent girls felt that the roadside was an unsafe place in the community.

Sandhiya’s mother concurs with these views. She tells us, “Perumbakkam is very unsafe. From the day we came here, it has only become more unsafe. Most of the children are school dropouts. Even if our children are good, due to peer pressure the background of other children may influence them. Girls also have dropped out of school and elopement and pre-marital pregnancy is so common. That is why most mothers are afraid of keeping their young girls at home (unsupervised). They feel it is safer for them to be married off instead,’’ says Vellankani.

Apart from this, Vellankani also raises a few more challenges for working parents. Due to the distance from the city (which is almost two hours one-way), many parents have to leave their children unattended until they return in the afternoon or evening. To add to that, there is a fear of their house being robbed while they are out. ‘’Even a gas cylinder is stolen here,’’ says Vellankani.

She continues, “We cannot keep the windows open for fear that someone is watching us… Moreover, no one knows when the electricity will go off. The whole colony will be in pitch darkness and that is the worst time. It is so bad, that we do not want to take the risk of going out after it is dark,” says a worried Vellankani.

On the outside, the colony looks like ideal apartment buildings; however, the people residing here understand the complexities of issues they have to deal with on a daily basis.   

How World Vision helps children in Sandhiya’s community

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World Vision’s work in Perumbakkam began after the Chennai floods in 2015. The overarching aim has been to ensure a safe and protected environment for children and women, and to build the resilience of the community. In November 2019, the ‘Empowerment of young girls’ project began with the aim of transforming the lives of adolescent and young girls so that they are viewed as a blessing and not a burden for their family.

The project engages in activities that not only enable the family and community to become a safe environment for girls, but also aims at improving the social and employment opportunities for adolescent girls and young women.

The Girl power groups formed through this project were instrumental in providing support and a sense of camaraderie to girls and their families, especially after being evicted from their homes in the city. The group has a mix of both school going girls and those who are out of school, between the age group of 14-18 years.

In their weekly group meetings, adolescents are empowered to find their own answers and propose changes to vexing, harmful and unjust socio-cultural norms, and traditional practices that hinder their development. They are also motivated to pursue their education and trained on life skills, Sports-4- Development, personal safety education, self-defence and reproductive health and hygiene.

Because of these groups, Sandhiya has strengthened her outlook on life and increased her self-confidence. She tells us, ‘’Many of my friends, nearly 14 girls, have eloped and got married. However, knowing my family situation I decided that I should study well and take care of my parents,’’ says Sandhiya.

She continues, “Through the Danger Girls power group I learnt about leadership skills and the need to be a good example for the members. The girls in my group look up to me as a leader with good values. They too are beginning to visualise a better future for themselves,’’ says Sandhiya proudly.

Empowering girls to lead

While Sandhiya has been participating in World Vision’s programs since the beginning, her involvement in the ‘Empowerment of young girls’ project has been significant. She not only the leads her girl power group, which is called Danger Girl Power group, but is an active participant of the Mime group that was trained through the project.

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The Girl power groups formed through this project were instrumental in providing support and a sense of camaraderie to girls and their families, especially after being evicted from their homes in the city. The group has a mix of both school going girls and those who are out of school, between the age group of 14-18 years.

In their weekly group meetings, adolescents are empowered to find their own answers and propose changes to vexing, harmful and unjust socio-cultural norms, and traditional practices that hinder their development. They are also motivated to pursue their education and trained on life skills, Sports-4- Development, personal safety education, self-defence and reproductive health and hygiene.

Because of these groups, Sandhiya has strengthened her outlook on life and increased her self-confidence. She tells us, ‘’Many of my friends, nearly 14 girls, have eloped and got married. However, knowing my family situation I decided that I should study well and take care of my parents,’’ says Sandhiya.

She continues, “Through the Danger Girls power group I learnt about leadership skills and the need to be a good example for the members. The girls in my group look up to me as a leader with good values. They too are beginning to visualise a better future for themselves,’’ says Sandhiya proudly.

Through the girl power group, Sandhiya also participated in a mime workshop in February 2020. The Mime performance (which uses facial expressions, body movements and hand gestures instead of words) was the first of its kind in Perumbakkam by the girl groups.

Sandhiya’s plans for the future

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At present, Sandhiya is happy that she has passed her 12th grade examination, and is busy with college admissions. Her dream is to become a software engineer, so that she can live a better life and shift her family out of poverty.

Her mother Vellankani says, “I have never studied.  Our only dream is that our children study and do not end up like us. I want them to study, get good jobs and be well settled in life,’’ says a hopeful Vellankani. She says that she will only get Sandhiya married after the age of 25, when she has finished studying and has a job.

Over the past few years, Sandhiya has learnt a lot through World Vision’s programmes and makes sure to share this knowledge with the girls in her group. She also continues to inspire them through her example of grit and determination.

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