Having fought child labour and poverty for nearly 3 decades, this organisation shows how it’s done
Dr Benazir Baig was around 17 years old when she saw small children going to work in a factory located opposite to her house. Seeing this inspired her to be the driver of change and she believed education to be the tool that could bring change to these children’s lives.
Raza Educational and Social Welfare Society, a Bengaluru-based NGO, endeavours to help unfortunate children and their families come out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Dr Benazir Baig, 44 has been working towards finding sustainable solutions to this problem for the past 21 years and is working on four projects at the moment. She completed her PhD in Studies for Education of Vulnerable Children four years ago.
National Child Project Scheme and Excellent School
NCLP was started formally in 1988 and is the first and only central government-funded project under Raza. It ran informally for the first four years untill it was registered in 1988. The programme aims to eradicate child labour by providing them a platform to learn.
Benazir recounts how getting in touch with the children and reaching out to them was the biggest problem. "They had potential, but no opportunity," she says. Additionally, she recounts how strange she found it when she saw that these children did not know how to hold a pencil, despite doing such hard factory work.
“My sister and I took five of these child labourers and started teaching them. Soon, I saw A, B, C, D scribbled on the walls and trees across Bismillah Nagar which made me believe that it was possible to encourage them to study and make their lives better.”
In 1999, the Excellent School was started, and Benazir and Anjum Fatima, her sister, would teach the children languages and humanities and science subjects. Their first class consisted of seven students. Today, the Excellent School has classes from kindergarten to class X with 600 students. For children who are not prepared for this kind of a learning environment, they are first sent to NCLP and then absorbed into the school. The Excellent School is currently being funded by Edelweiss and the Smile Foundation. While the NCLP programme is free of cost, the vocational training programme and Excellent School charge a nominal fee, for Benazir believes that people don’t value education that is entirely free of cost.
Menstrual hygiene project
Poor sanitation facilities and lack of awareness among adoloscent girls is one reason why girls drop out of school. In addition, not all can afford sanitary napkins and hence resort to using poor substitutes like sand, paper, cloth, and old rags.
Raza is aggressively looking for aid for their menstrual hygiene project through crowdfunding campaigns. The idea is to produce high-quality, low- cost, and 100 percent biodegradable sanitary napkins—including packaging—and to spread awareness about the importance of menstrual hygiene.
The sanitary napkins will be produced by women from Bismallah Nagar. Around five women will be trained to use the machine and other women will help in marketing the product, which will be done door to door. Benazir devoted two years of solid research to come up with the idea and to see what materials needed to be used. An engineer, Abdul Kadeer Khan, has helped design and carry out the modifications to the machine.
The machine has a production capacity of 50,000 napkins per month which will be sold in packets of seven for Rs 30.
"My mind used to work 24/7 only for this idea. So I decided to take this up, which turned out to be a learning process for me as well," she says.
Benazir reiterates how raising funds for this project is one of the biggest bottlenecks. The machine and raw materials are estimated to cost around Rs 10 lakh. Suman Karthik, 39, is a volunteer at Raza and is helping them raise funds for this particular project.
She recalls some of her interview experiences with young girls from the area, when asked about menstruation. One of the girls said, "The bad blood comes when I eat junk food." Another said, "My mother doesn't let me go to the washroom alone at night unless I carry a knife because there are demons that will harm me.”
On the affordability of sanitary napkins, another woman said, “I can't afford it. We make Rs 6,000 a month. Do I feed my family or pay rent or buy sanitary napkins for five girls every month?” Suman compares these interview experiences to opening a pandora’s box. "The myth exists not only in the lower strata of society. Education and empowerment is critical to demistify the topic and remove the taboo,” says she.
Suman is also looking for collaborations with schools where these napkins can be sold and adolescent girls can be encouraged to stay in school.
Vocational training programme
Raza trains over 115 students in computers, English, and workplace readiness. At the end of the three-month vocational training course funded by Tech Mahindra, the students get absorbed in retail or BPO jobs. The current rate of placements is about 70 percent. All the students in this programme are 18 and above. While some have completed schooling, some lost touch with education or never got the opportunity to pursue it.
One of the teachers at the vocational training centre, Rehana, recalls the challenges they faced in the last eight years of her service, “Encouraging students to come has been a great difficulty; sometimes parents don’t allow, other times the students don’t see a point. Moreover, most students want jobs within three–four km and don’t want to travel beyond that.” They use door-to-door mobilising to collect the students. Currently, there are 60 students.
Saniya is a 17-year-old student who has completed her 12th standard and wants to pursue a B.Com. degree next. She said, “I had stage fright and only knew Urdu, therefore, these classes have helped me to converse with people by giving me the opportunity to learn English and Kannada.” Syedshaahina, 17, is proud that she can now speak Kannada and work with computers. She wants to work after she completes this course.
The tailoring classes, also part of the vocational training, are taken by Tarannum, 34, who has been working with Raza for the past seven years. The tailoring course spans over six months, after which some girls and women go on to sell what they make. One of the students is a woman who lost her husband and father and hopes to support her children after the completion of this course.
Future plans of action
Raza wishes to collaborate with Menstrupedia, which has adopted a unique way of capturing people’s attention and educating them about the taboo subject of menstruation.
They hope to find funding for better infrastructure for the Excellent School and the sanitary napkin project. The search for funding, more volunteers, and more solutions is a forever scenario at Raza. As Benazir said, “My job is to keep the show running. The show must go on.”