July 9, 2006
Each morning Sonia Singh leaves the comforts of her businessman father’s home to teach the three R’s to 478 children, aged between three and 15 years, spread across Lucknow’s many slums.
Each morning Sonia Singh leaves the comforts of her businessman father’s home to teach the three R’s to 478 children, aged between three and 15 years, spread across Lucknow’s many slums. Four years ago a chance encounter with a sooty, drugged child at a railway platform convinced this Bareilley University graduate that these children deserved a shot at a better life. The thought was the easy part. Convincing the children, who imagined she was doing it for herself, was tough.
But Singh persisted and started by teaching four urchins. She was chased away by the railway police, booed by the elder children and had no help. But she persisted and with time, got 15 children to attend her makeshift school. “Today, there are 25 children, but there is no saying how many will attend school at any given time. The police often puts them in the lock up for imagined violations”, she says.
From that beginning, Singh spread out to six slums inhabited by beggars and rag pickers. As word about her work got around, one school offered its premises to teach the children, another offered some stationery while yet another offered to adopt five students every year.
Two years ago, the Washington DC chapter of the NGO Asha for Education was so impressed by Singh’s work that it offered financial help. That also meant volunteers to help, and today Singh heads a dedicated army of 13 who teach children across seven makeshift schools.
“Our greatest success is the fact that we have been able to mainstream many of these children. Last year, the number was 44. Initially we doubted that they would be able to integrate themselves with children from better off families but their progress has been amazing. However, the dissonance strikes hard when they get back to their poor homes. It is then that we need to tell them that education is the best chance that they have at a better life. Think how easy it would be if all of Lucknow’s 1700 registered NGOs just took it upon themselves to educate children of one locality”, she explains.
Twenty-seven and unmarried is not the best of qualifications in the conservative, patriarchal society Singh inhabits. “My younger sister is getting married and my mother is petrified I will never find myself a match. She constantly harps on where I would be when my parents are gone. But this cause is my life”, she says simply.
Singh dreams big. “I want to build a home which can house all the world’s homeless children. I want to make them good, responsible citizens.” Given her slight frame you might dismiss these. But the steely determination in her voice convinces you otherwise.