Widowed at 20 with two kids, this Kerala woman fought odds to study, help others

Sifiya Haneef was awarded the Neerja Bhanot award on September 7 for her efforts to help widows with pension, families meet their expenses and others with education.
Widowed at 20 with two kids, this Kerala woman fought odds to study, help others
Widowed at 20 with two kids, this Kerala woman fought odds to study, help others
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With her sneezing child, Sifiya Haneef sat at a Bengaluru bus stop that night, five years ago, not knowing what to do with her life. She was only 20 when she became a widow, and by then, a mother of two. Bengaluru was her last resort to put her life back together, return to school, learn and get a job. But the friends who once promised to help her, suddenly cut her calls. Sifiya had nowhere else to turn to, until a woman she’d call ‘paati’ came to her rescue, took her home, fed her and her hungry child. 

Months later, Sifiya would go back home to Palakkad in Kerala, study more, and with her small income, help other women in need like her. Sifiya had even begun a Facebook page for this, to find more people willing to help. Today, she helps 100 families meet their monthly expenses, 38 widows with pension, seven others with their education and also takes motivation classes.

On September 7, Sifiya received the Neerja Bhanot Award at a function in Chandigarh, in recognition of all the work she has been doing. The award was instituted in 1990 in memory of Neerja Bhanot, the flight attendant who sacrificed her life trying to save the passengers on board during a hijack in Karachi.

Sifiya receives the Neerja Bhanot award

“I am back home now, in Vadakkancherry, Palakkad,” she says. Her story has been told before – as the girl who got married at 16 and became a widow four years later, with two sons to take care of. “Back then, I was not forced to get married. That’s been the practice in our community, all my friends were getting married at a young age. I didn’t know that it was important to get an education; neither did my parents who thought they were doing me good by getting me married,” Sifiya says.

It wasn’t a happy marriage and widowhood was not easy. Sifiya knew that she had to stop depending on another person and had to get an education. “But there was no one to support me. I got a part-time job and continued my studies, from where I had earlier stopped. When my husband was alive, we had spent some time in Bengaluru and I had friends there. They were ready to help when I called. But when I turned up with my younger son, leaving my elder one back home, their families were reluctant to take me in. My friends stopped answering my calls or else cut them. That’s when I met Paati in Bengaluru.”

Sifiya and Paati

The woman she calls Paati is from Andhra, but both of them could speak Tamil to each other. Sifiya learned that Paati, too, had a daughter who was widowed at the age of 22. “I put my child in an orphanage from morning to evening while I went to work at a call centre as a customer care executive and then we went to Paati’s house for the night,” she says.

She also does not forget the people who lent her a helping hand. She sends photos of her with the Paati. “Her biggest desire was to get on a flight. So I took her home on a plane once. And, she thought to get on a flight, one had to have black hair. So, she dyed her hair black just to get on the plane,” Sifiya recalls her days with Patti.

But a few months later, mother and child were tired of life in Bengaluru and unable to go through the routine. Sifiya’s elder son back home in Kerala, too, needed her attention. So she went home and got another job – as a receptionist at a hospital, while she also continued her studies. With the income she got from the job, she began sponsoring the education of five street children. Sifiya also began a Facebook page for her activities around the same time.

Support system from Facebook

“The support I got from the Facebook page became a huge motivation for me,” says Sifiya, who gets monetary help from various people through the page. Using these monetary contributions, she buys all the materials required for the families who need them.

Sifiya began finding more families needing support – families of children with disabilities and mothers having to leave them home while they went to work; families whose breadwinners had become bedridden after an accident, and of course, widows. “I have now learned to drive a four-wheeler, too; so I use that to take materials to the families,” Sifiya says.

While she took care of others, she also took herself through college – finishing her B.Ed., her Masters in Social Work, a diploma in Public Administration and is now going to pursue Masters in Literature. “I also plan to do an M. Phil.,” she says. She takes motivational and tuition classes to make an income.

In her motivational classes, she tells young women about the importance of getting an education. “Only through a job can you have your identity. Earlier, I never made decisions of my own; now, I make decisions at my home.” 

Sifiya also plans to get married again soon, to a childhood friend, although she does not want to reveal more details now. “I had told my parents that I would not remarry without getting an education and a job. My parents waited patiently,” she says. 

“Once women are widowed, they are expected to sit at home and take care of the children, and not have a life of their own. But wouldn’t you want someone to listen to your joys and sorrows?” Sifiya asks.

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