THE UNSEEN FACES SERIES: 3. HEMLATA
A suicide ended Hemlata’s first job with an NGO. It was probably no big deal for the locality in New Delhi, where gender decides the value of a life. But it shook up Hemlata, then in her early 20’s.
“I will never forget her beautiful face and smile. And she was among the brightest in the class.” The memory still haunts Hemlata. “I fell sick. It took me a few days to feel strong enough to face the world again.”
The NGO was doing a good job of ensuring that the children came to class and got good education. “However, we failed to truly connect to the children. Later, the locals said she had ‘something’ going on with a boy. At the age of 12? And we had no clue that she was so desperate?” Hemlata considered it her personal failure.
At the education centre that she heads today, Hemlata is more than a teacher. She is a dear friend, a trusted confidant and a role model to her students.
Thanks for letting a girl study
Hemlata was born in Bareilly as the oldest of two brothers and three sisters. The family moved to Delhi when she was barely one.
She remembers her father’s words when he took her to college: “This degree will open up many doors for you. Please study well.”
Hemlata had already started tuitions at home to pay for her graduation and her personal expenses. “Looking at the state of girls where I lived, it was enough that my parents were letting me study. I did not want to burden them more with money problems.”
She passed her B.A. examination from Delhi University in 2012. She wanted to complete her B.Ed. immediately after but her financial condition did not permit that. (Hemlata has now taken up B.Ed. and has already completed one year.)
In order to help her mother, Hemlata decided to stay at home for some time. She used that time to tutor her younger brother. She also tried her hand at becoming an electrician. That didn’t work out.
Teaching beckons to hostile lanes
Her first love, teaching, was calling her again. She applied to another NGO that was about to start a centre to teach girls at Kalyanpuri, two kilometres away from her place.
The task was daunting. The locality was not safe for girls. Hemlata had to go there as an outsider and conduct a house-to-house survey to enrol potential students. Then she had to persuade the sceptical and at time hostile parents let the girls come to the new centre.
Sure enough, she had to put up with some nasty comments as she negotiated the narrow lanes. Banking on the encouragement she received from her team, she persisted. She armed herself “with a thick skin and plenty of hope.”
Most initial visits were just to establish herself as a harmless visitor with a positive intention. Whenever she came across a family that had school-going girls, she would ask if the children were receiving tuition. Most parents could not afford the money or the time (in Kalyanpuri it is considered unsafe for girls to walk alone). So, would they consider sending the girls to the new centre nearby for free tuition? Maybe for an hour to begin with? The parents could also come along to see what was happening. Please?
Her perseverance paid off. “In about 20 days, I managed to enrol 54 students.” The centre started in May 2016. Later, she would help recruit another teacher, Bharti, and take the tally higher.
Nurturing dreams, equipping for reality
The main objective at the centre where Hemlata plays the lead role is to ensure the girls remain successful in school at least until grade 12. So, they get supplementary education in the main subjects like Mathematics, Science and English.
However, the care is not limited to academics. “We pay attention to their nutrition. There are regular health check-ups. We help uncover and develop the artist in them. We encourage them to express themselves freely. We make them confident enough to stand on their own in society. The martial arts classes help.”
“They are in their early teens and very impressionable. We keep talking about various aspects of life—good touch and bad touch, and the importance of pausing to think before taking any important decision. The teachers look out for subtle changes in attitude, in dressing and in dealing with others. And we stay in touch with the parents.”
Hemlata clarified that the idea was not to dictate how the girls ought to live their lives. “We encourage them to make friends and to spend time with others regardless of gender. However, if the cues are not right, we caution them. Is a friendship becoming an obsession, a distraction that pushes everything else away? Do you end up doing things on the sly? Do you find yourself telling lies often?”
She remembers a case where a girl was all set to elope with a boy. When the parents got wind of it, they made matters worse by preparing to marry her off immediately (early marriage is common as a "safe" option). It took several rounds of counselling to restore normalcy.
“The tendency is to come down on the girl heavily and ban everything. What she really needs is a friend, not a disciplinarian, someone willing to hear her out. We told this student she was at liberty to choose her friends and a life mate. The choice was acting in haste now, losing her education and the regretting it later. Why not wait until she was old enough to take a mature decision? Wouldn’t the relationship have a better chance if they waited until they were both older and independent?”
Keep learning and help others learn
Three years after Hemlata braved the hostile lanes to enrol them, the girls are today more confident and better equipped to tackle the world on their own. One girl had enrolled from a locality where conditions were the worst. While the teachers helped her with personal hygiene, it was a task to make her sit properly in one spot. However, she was a keen observer and noticed how her fellow students were behaving in class. Soon, she was chastising others who behaved badly.
Another student began as a very shy girl. She too absorbed what was happening around her and made Hemlata her role model. Now she is confident enough to mind the class when required. “The transformation came from within her; we just let her discover herself,” Hemlata said.
Hemlata has now taken on the responsibility of running more educational initiatives. She is training more teachers to be mentors. She would love to see more such centres in economically diverse locations.
“Here we had to deal with reluctant students and reluctant parents. It took our team quite some time, but I believe that we have succeeded in changing the mindset of the local community. I am sure there must be other families, maybe in different economic brackets, keen to educate their girls. They don’t know where to go. Here we go beyond tuitions and examinations and prepare the girls to fare better in life with confidence. My experience tells me more girls deserve that opportunity,” Hemlata said.
Her mission is clear. “I want to keep learning and help more girls learn to cope with life.”
Pooja Varma, a development professional, who played a key role in recruiting Hemlata and then went on to work with her, is amazed by Hemlata’s growth. “From someone not at all sure of herself, she is now a confident leader and an efficient trainer. She is sensitive to the feelings of the girls, knows them well, and yet respects their privacy. I remember the bold stand she once took to refuse all scholarships because the money was offered only to a few students. She felt that kind of discrimination would cause major disruption and undo all the good they had managed to achieve. Hemlata is mentoring more teachers to be more than just teachers in the academic sense. I am sure she will go on to guide more and more girls discover themselves. She will give them the courage to dream and the wings to fly.”
Hemlata is currently associated with iDream.