Fourteen-year-old Jhuma Akhter is back in school and performing at the top of her class thanks to a cash transfer programme. Getting here hasn't been easy. When Jhuma was just eight years old, she left school to work as a maid in an abusive home. She spent three years there, and was never paid for her labour or allowed to attend school. She worked in exchange for her upkeep and the promise that when the time came for her to marry, her employer would pay her dowry.
Eventually, Jhuma's mother allowed her to return home. But every day after school, Jhuma would head to work, going door-to-door to beg for rice. One day, as they sat eating their rice on the stoop of their tin-roofed shack, Jhuma explained to her mother that as she advanced from one grade to the next, the costs of school would increase. She would need tutoring, study guides and notebooks not provided by the school.
So her mother decided it was no longer worthwhile to send her to school – and instead brought her along to work. Working full time supplying water to local businesses, Jhuma brought in approximately US$7 a month.
That's when Nazma, a community volunteer, spotted Jhuma. “They were looking for kids like us,” Jhuma explains. Nazma invited Jhuma and her mother to a few meetings to assess the family's needs and eventually enrolled them in a cash transfer programme conditional upon Jhuma's attendance at school. Now that her mother receives two annual installments of approximately US$150, Jhuma has returned to school. She is in the seventh grade.
In the neighbourhood, Jhuma is no longer known as the girl who carries water. Instead, she is recognized by her new routine. Every evening after prayers, she hauls a plastic folding table and chair out by the garbage dump at the bend in the road so she can do her homework under the glow of the lamppost. Ever resourceful like her mother, she writes her assignments on the back of political campaign posters left over from the most recent election.
Today, when Jhuma imagines the future, marriage is no longer part of the picture. In fact, she thinks girls should wait till they're at least 22, well beyond the 18 years minimum dictated by the law. Instead, Jhuma now dreams of one day becoming a doctor. “I want to provide care for everybody.”