'Good girls don’t go to college…’

'Good girls don’t go to college…’

Bereaved at age 8, Nilofer had a dream

Born to a mother who had only studied up to class IV, Nilofer* was one of four sisters left bereaved by the early death of her mother. A determined woman, Yasmine Begum was married to a man who earned a very meagre living by fixing automobile seats, but she held fast to her dream of educating her daughters. When she was looking for a school for her youngest daughter Nilofer, she was guided to The Calcutta Emmanuel School.

When she was merely 8 years old Nilofer lost her mother. Engulfed in grief, her father struggled to come to terms with his loss. The family was sinking in a vortex of despair. But Nilofer recalls, ‘Aunty Premila visited our home at the time and her words helped the family take a small step towards resuming life. Had she not made the visit, I don’t know if my father would have sent us to school again.’

                 ‘At school everyone was like family and so understanding’ 

At home, Nilofer’s eldest sister gave up her studies to care for her siblings. ‘At school everyone was like family and so understanding,’ she says. ‘Unlike today, where all children pay for private tutors at home, we never had the means to engage anyone. But that’s also because our teachers understood our needs and the school had extra classes after school hours. I now look back and know that those classes helped us so much.’

Life in the slums can be hard and Nilofer’s family faced a lot of criticism from the neighbours. After finishing school, when she would go to college, her neighbours would ridicule her father and make snide remarks – ‘Good girls don’t go to colleges.’ Their conservative neighbourhood was not used to the sight of unmarried girls pursuing studies and possibly working. ‘But it is changing now,’ Nilofer says. ‘My father was very, very supportive through it all.’

After graduation, one of her sisters and she completed a certificate course in computer applications that was being offered for free by the Kolkata Police. So determined was this young girl that she topped the exams and was awarded a gold medal by the Chief Minister. She was then invited to teach at the same institute. Another course in multimedia, sponsored by a funding partner of the school gave her the necessary confidence. But three years later, she realized she wanted to fulfill another dream.

As a child Nilofer had watched her mother giving Urdu tuitions to children in the slum. Those memories stayed with her and impressed upon her heart the wish to be a teacher. So she decided to enroll in a Montessori training course. Her course fees were paid for and fully sponsored by a partner organization of The Calcutta Emmanuel School.

Nilofer has not looked back since. Young girls and women in India often face many challenges, and Nilofer wanted to not just overcome these challenges but do it with dignity. As a teacher today, employed at a private school, she can sense that respect accorded to her as a teacher. ‘People in my neighbourhood look at my sisters and I as examples. They are now encouraging their daughters to study.’

*Names mentioned in this story have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the individuals.