I am an independent person now."
A Beacon for a Better Life
Disaster seemed to dog her from the time she was a toddler. Suryakala was orphaned when she was only one-and-a-half years old. An aunt brought her up. She was taught to follow the norms of her community, which discourages girls and women from interacting with people outside the immediate family. With no exposure to the external world, it would have been entirely understandable if she had unquestioningly bowed to the unjust and smothering dictates of society and continued to merely exist. But Suryakala dared to break the mould.
When she was just 17, her aunt found her a groom from the same village, but could not afford to meet his family’s demand for jewellery. Her in-laws lost no opportunity to humiliate her. She was finally sent back to her aunt’s home, and told to return only if she brought the jewellery they had demanded.
A life-changing decision
It was when she was at this low point that Hand in Hand entered Suryakala’s life. Hand in Hand undertook a survey in the village, and she was one of the respondents. Impressed by her, the mobilizer asked if she would help with a similar survey to identify children who had dropped out of school. Suryakala, who was just 21 then, agreed – no small decision for someone conditioned to remain within the confines of her home.
She joined Hand in Hand as a mobilizer in 2005 and began working in her native Pazhanthangal Panchayat in Tamil Nadu. Initially, it was quite a struggle for her to come out of her shell and talk to people. Within three months of joining Hand in Hand, Suryakala identified three school dropouts. She visited their homes and counseled their parents on the importance of education. Her first success was Shaktivel, who had dropped out of Std. VII. She got him enrolled in Hand in Hand’s Poongavanam Residential Special Training Centre (RSTC) and he went on to complete his schooling. Shaktivel now works at a Hyundai factory. The other two children who were identified along with him also finished their schooling and are well employed.
Suryakala has got 49 children enrolled in RSTCs, and was the driving force behind a total of 189 children completing Std. X. From being school dropouts, many opted for higher studies, while others succeeded in finding good jobs. In fact, one of ‘her students’ as she thinks of them, is a policeman in her own Panchayat.
Buoyed by her success, Suryakala’s confidence grew. She was regularly invited to Gram Sabha meetings to discuss elimination of child labour. Soon she was promoted as Organizer by Hand in Hand India, and given responsibility for more panchayats.
She has now risen to the position of Block Coordinator Trainee, and since March 2015, holds responsibility for 18 panchayats in the Kundrathur Block. Thanks to her relentless efforts, and the Child Rights Protection Committee (CRPC) team’s timely intervention, Suryakala’s panchayat has now been declared child labour-free.
Not one to rest on her laurels, she has since turned her attention to the impoverished Narikuravar and Irular tribes, indigenous to Tamil Nadu, and the families of migrants from Odisha and other States who come south seeking jobs. She has been working to convince Narikuravar and Irural communities in Karsingal of the importance of educating their children. “We have also formed an SHG of tribal women who are taught to save for their future,” she says proudly.
Suryakala has also rescued 13 children working in stone and granite quarries and enrolled them in RSTCs. Talking of workers from other States, she says “convincing and educating migrants and rescuing children from bonded labour have even necessitated police intervention at times.”
Her own courage and perseverance are behind Suryakala’s success. But Hand in Hand was the catalyst for these. She has been responsible for uplifting the lives of many downtrodden and underprivileged people, both children and adults.