Features Tuesday, April 07, 2015 - 05:30
By Aparna Gupta The News Minute| March 8, 2015| 12.00 pm IST “Kids are celebrating Holi here. I will call you back once it gets over,” she shouts excitedly, her voice drowned out by the boisterous laughter and music coming from the other end of the phone. “Your students sure seem to like you,” I say, once the celebration mood settles down and Neni is in a quieter place.  “Oh yes, I am their favourite! There was no escape from their colours and love today,” exclaims Neni. Neni is currently pursuing her M.A in Hindi and is a teacher and the hostel warden at the Sucheta Kriplani Siksha Niketan (SKSN). She wants to be a college professor one day. After securing a brilliant score of 81% in her B.Ed examinations, she firmly believes that she can do anything she sets her eyes on. But this 24-year-old vivacious girl was not always brimming with this confidence. Born in a poor family of agriculturalists in the dusty village of Sathin, almost 60 km away from Jodhpur, Neni contracted polio at the age of three. Even after numerous visits to doctors and multiple operations, things did not brighten up for little Neni. The struggles continued unabated as Neni’s father passed away when she was just a toddler, leaving her mother to fend for herself and her four children. Despite all odds, Neni’s mother, Bau Devi ensured that her bright daughter goes to school. While many in the village considered it absurd for a differently abled girl to get educated -- and we are talking about that part of India where disability is still considered to be a God’s curse -- Neni’s schooling continued undeterred. In fact, she’s the only one among her siblings to reach this level in her education. At the age of 16 she came to SKSN as a student and that changed her life. “School didn’t have a meaning for me till I came to SKSN. In my village I had never discovered my strengths. My ambitions. My dreams. It was for the first time that I realised I was good at something. It was for the first time that I had ambitions. And I also knew that I can achieve them if I put my heart into it.” says Neni. Neni’s journey, from ridicule, neglect and discrimination to confidence, independence and daring is the journey of many young children with disabilities who have been empowered with education at SKSN. In a country where the government is struggling to implement its own policies of inclusive education, here is a small school in Jodhpur which started off as a residential school for boys with physical disabilities and today proudly hosts children with both the sexes, irrespective of their physical or mental conditions. Not only are these kids writing their own destinies, but they have turned the tables around, by catalysing empowerment of their communities and villages through different initiatives implemented by SKSN. For instance, the IMAGE (Indian Mixed Abilities Group Events) Project brings village children into a sport for social change programme, where the differently abled students of SKSN deliver valuable health and education knowledge activities to nurture their own social inclusion into mainstream society. One of their projects in which Neni is involved that particularly interested me is the "1000 Loos campaign". Today, when the enlightened policy makers have jumped the band wagon of Swaccha Bharat and the government is rushing to meet targets of building toilets, the real brunt of the problem is understood by these kids. “If you wish to understand open defecation, ask a child with bilateral paralysis how it feels to go 2.5 kilometres away on a rainy night to relieve oneself. Especially in this part of Rajasthan where the dingy, dusty, inaccessible streets make wheel chairs meaningless,” says Ms Sneh Gupta, Executive Director of SKSN For these kids and staff at SKSN, open defecation is not just a fancy word. It is an intrinsic part of their continuous battle against disability; against polio, diarrhoea and hepatitis and against stunting. But then, in these conditions of grinding poverty, sanitation is a luxury. Therefore, through the "1000 Loo’s Campaign", Neni and her passionate colleagues aim to build a thousand water-free toilets in a thousand villages, along with kick starting health education campaigns for better hygiene and sanitation. These young women at SKSN, armed with their education and self confidence, go back to the villages and persuade villagers to adopt hygienic practices such as washing hands with soap, eliminate open defecation and promote sanitation. “Isn’t it amazing and shameful for the government at the same time, that my differently abled girls, who are at the bottom most rung of the social ladder, and last on the priorities of those in power are going out and doing the job which the Governments of the day should have been doing?” proudly asks Gupta. Neni is getting married to a non-disabled young man at the end of this month. She told her to be in-laws that she is not going to wear a Ghaghra, not going to put a Ghoonghat and she is going to continue to work after the wedding. “I am going to live my life on my terms,” she says assertively. In a remote village in the state of Rajasthan, where the power dynamics are visibly tilted against women, this young girl has the guts to take control of her own life. “That is what education does. It gives you the courage to conquer everything,” says Gupta. Tweet