Samsha Khatun, 45, is a mother of eight. She lives with her husband and children in a slum resettlement area on the fringes of Delhi, India.
Illiterate herself, Samsha has spent years championing girls’ education and gender equality in her community. She is an active member of a community group supported by Plan International that encourages parents to allow their girls to enter a training program which, in turn, can help them find decent jobs.
Over the years, Samsha has learned to use her charisma and candor to initiate difficult dialogues in her community on social issues affecting girls. From early marriage to employment, there is hardly any issue Samsha hasn’t tackled.
“My biggest regret in life is that I couldn’t get an education,” she said. “I grew up in a very poor family and girls in those days came last in the order of priorities. When I had my own children – five girls and three boys – I was determined to send all of them to school.
“I have been working in the community for nearly two decades and everyone knows me in the neighborhood. At the beginning, I used to face a lot of resistance from the menfolk. They couldn’t tolerate a frail woman influencing their wives and daughters and telling them what was best for their families. It took me a long time to build trust with everyone.
“I now use the relationships I have built with people in the community to have frank conversations with them and influence their thinking, particularly on how they treat girls in their families.
“Until a few years ago, it was common for only boys to be sent to school. I have, on a number of occasions, taken girls to school and got them enrolled, despite initial disapproval from their parents.
“Things are changing now. I have seen a huge change in people’s attitudes in recent years. When I first started work in the community, women rarely crossed the threshold. It was rare to see women on the streets. Now, women and girls are more visible. You can see them in public spaces and you can speak to them. However, a lot of work still needs to be done.
“As part of the Saksham Program, I regularly convene meetings of mothers whose daughters have completed secondary education. I try to convince them to send their daughters for training and to allow their girls to work and be independent.
“It is important that girls’ parents and wider community are involved in making things better for girls. Without everyone’s support, true change for girls cannot be achieved. I even speak to boys and men in the community and try to make them realize that girls are equal to boys and we must not deny our daughters opportunities in life. I also remind boys, including my own sons, on how they should treat girls with respect as safety is the biggest worry of most parents.
“It is my strong belief that everyone should go to work and stand on their own two feet. It is even more important for girls to be financially independent so that they never have to rely on their husbands and other male members of the family for their needs.
“I want to set the example for others and have asked my daughter who has just completed her graduation to look for a job.
“Things are changing now for girls and women. It is the time for their empowerment. Girls are completing their education and many are finding work too. They are changing their lives and those of their families too. I have never felt more hopeful and excited. I get the feeling that we can turn the tide.”