The house of dreams: pioneering work for girls in a Mumbai orphanage

This week’s Sunday Telegraph magazine, Stella, contained an uplifting article by Sally Howard, which I have yet to find online; if you can find it and read it, do. In it, she describes a visit to Shraddhanand Mahilashram, an orphanage for girls in Mumbai, India, where girls are taught to be independent, confident young women, and the story she tells is one of hope and determination to carve out a better future for some of the most disadvantaged in society. Education is an important part of what is provided for the girls in the orphanage; and the girls are encouraged to develop skills which will be of practical commercial use to them in the world in which they will grow up. I was struck – as, clearly, was the author – by how the orphanage prepares for this future, quoting Unicef’s Aniruddha Kulkarni talking disparagingly about the current trend in Indian orphanages and other institutions for teaching traditional handicraft skills as part of their core activity: “Girls weaving sari borders make great pictures for brochures aimed at foreign donors … [but] what use are such skills to young women in the cities of a booming 21st-century nation? Institutions have to be relevant. They have to give children the skills they need to be part of India’s success story.”

Such a focus at the orphanage also liberates the girls, giving them the means to break free of the cycles which have prevented them from having the same range of choices as boys. The sad – and shocking – truth is that girl babies are still less desirable than boy babies. The birthrate of boys compared to girls in India is still suspiciously high; people talk of the 8 million ‘missing girls’, the number of female foetuses estimated to have been aborted over the past ten years because they were not boys. Boys have – still – the potential to bring greater financial security to their families, and, when they marry, to bring a wife (plus dowry) into the family to contribute to the domestic labour. Girls, on the other hand, are costly – they are raised to the point where they are sent off in arranged marriages, plus dowry, to provide labour for another family. It is little wonder, while these expectations remain in place, and while girls are not given the skills to provide financially for themselves, that newborn girls are more likely to be abandoned by their parents, and that orphanages such as Shraddhanand Mahilashram will continue to have a role to play in helping to support them.

As with the issue of forced and early marriage, which has finally been outlawed in the UK, and has been the focus of worldwide attention through the Commonwealth, for too long people have shied away from criticising cultural practices which have disadvantaged or harmed girls, for fear of seeming to be culturally insensitive. In actual fact, any practice which harms girls or their life chances is wrong, and we must not be afraid to say so. In this world of instant communication, and easy connection, we have to find ways not just of passing on this message, but of helping to break the cycles of poverty which allow them to become embedded.

We have so much to do …


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