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     Volume 12 |Issue 03| January 18, 2013 |


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Shapla and Others Make a Difference

Tulip Chowdhury

On an early fall day Shapla enters my house for the first time. She is tall for her twelve years and gives me a sweet smile. She is one of the thousands of children caught in the vicious grip of poverty.

She was in Class III in the local government school. Education in school was free but she could not buy the stationery, maintain a school uniform and because of household chores had no time to study or to attend school regularly. Shapla and her three sisters hardly got proper meals and so Shapla was sent off to Dhaka to work as a domestic help, adding one more school drop out in the existing challenges of spreading education to the grassroots.

She tells me that this is her first visit to Dhaka.

“Why did you leave school and come to work?” I ask her.

“My parents can't feed us,” she says and then after a pause adds, “Maybe if I was a boy Baba would not have sent me, he would have loved me!”

Many young girls com to the city and work as domestic workers, it is a sad reality that we accept even though we know that child labour is wrong. The truth is that poverty forces these children to work as domestic help and without this work they will face even more hardship. From time to time news of abuse, sexual harassment, torture and even deaths of domestic workers are reported in the media. Even those who do not face such brutality are treated with coldness and apathy. But they are part of our growing generation and they play a huge role in making our lives more comfortable. For our part we can begin helping them discover their hidden potential and help them find the light of knowledge. For a fraction of contribution to the nation we can give a little space in our heart to these girls. Had not Mother Teresa said, “If you cannot feed a hundred people, just feed one”.

Child domestic workers must eat separately, use separate plates and are treated with general apathy.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv

There is endless gossip among employers about how insolent and lazy domestic helps are. But the truth is that most of them would not be able to run a household without their help. Many of their flaws are rooted in illiteracy and poverty. There are many kind employers who help these girls and their families too. Helping at least one girl to stand with dignity in life in one's lifetime is like adding another star to the sky. We can be forgiving, if possible send them to schools, give them proper health care and most of all give them the dignity of being another human being just like us. And if at the end of it all a girl cannot adjust she should be sent back to her family. We have no right to coerce them into staying, just for our selfish reasons. Charity can begin at home and we can light the way for these girls and make a difference!

Being a girl child seems to be Shapla's first hurdle in life. Her poverty, her society's perception of women's stereotypical roles diminish her self-confidence. I feel an inner urge to open that closed window, to let light seep into the dark corners of her mind and heart.

My heart reaches out to her and taking her hand I smile and say, “Don't worry about work. I am an old woman and need your help. Never feel afraid to tell me about your needs, this is your new home. And if you don't want to stay here just say so and I will send you back.”

This first assurance of freedom to stay or go seems to allow Shapla to breathe a little easily at my home. This is perhaps her first glimpse into herself as a person, an individual; at least she has a choice! I find that she is a chatterbox but her smile is addictive and she is a curious cat. Her first trip to Dhaka, she has so much to learn! There are hundreds of questions about life in the metropolitan city. Her mind is like a sponge, ready to absorb new concepts of life --she already has dreams of being computer literate!

Knowing Shapla can read and write, I find myself getting busy getting her books, pens and notebooks. I have recently retired from teaching and now I have found a new challenge. Can I tutor Shapla? I don't want to take the risk of sending her to a school for the rude truth that I cannot assure her safety on the streets of Dhaka if sent alone. Along with constant guidance on manners, I allow her to watch informative television channels, opening her mind to the bigger world. I tell her how the Almighty is watching over us and how life is given and taken by Him. Now she has a firm belief in Allah and whenever I look worried she tells me, “No worries, Allah is there Mami (Aunt) looking after us!” She is learning to read the Quran from our family huzur.

“Shapla, don't you feel sad at times? Don't you feel scared? When something hurts you, don't you feel like sharing it?” I enquire.

“Yes, Mami, I do feel these things!” She stares at my eyes as if very surprised that someone should give importance to her thoughts and feelings. I show her bundles of journals my daughter had left before leaving for the US.

“I never read them.” I tell Shapla. “The journals are your own personal thoughts, the diary is like your friend. Why don't you start writing, write even one line every night before you go to sleep, start with what makes you happy or sad”

“But, Mami, I have already forgotten so many spellings.” says Shapla.

“Don't worry about spelling, write what your heart says, imagine your friend doesn't care about spelling.” I tell her that as she starts reading her story books she will learn the spellings and along the way her writing skills will grow.

Every day when she fetches the newspaper she has to tell me the date, month, day and year from the paper. After two months she holds on to the newspaper, wants to read the headlines before handing it over to me. I smile, knowing that soon she will be curious to read the news too. She writes her diary everyday and I have told her that she can keep her secrets. It seems as though through her diaries, writing about her life, Shapla has come to realise that she is a person with freedom and dignity of her own. I hope this realisation will be the spring board from which she will one day learn to put forth her first steps into the long journey of a worthy life, will discover endless possibilities it can offer. She may become the girl who will be the Shapla (water lily) that will float from the lake to the seas, find a distant shore in life where she will come to aid other Shaplas like her, help them to find their dignity. They will know that being a girl is no crime, that man and women have equal rights as citizens of Bangladesh. And most of all, the realisation will come that each girl is also an incredible creation of God.


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