India: school drop-outs experience their first graduation ceremony
13 September 2012

Premila (20) and Beham (17) perform a Sri Lankan folk dance to start the closing ceremony of the 23rd batch of women from the Saint Joseph's Tailoring School in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. 19 girls completed this 6-month course in tailoring, embroidery, gardening, cooking, English, and computer skills. (Molly Mullen/JRS International)
In a society where traditionally women were not educated and were not allowed to appear in public, these schools offer social awareness and micro-business skills in a women-friendly space

Trichy, India, 13, September, 2012 – Saint Joseph's Tailoring School was electric with the kind of excitement familiar to anyone who has been backstage before a school play. The lights dim, parents, siblings and teachers take their seats, and anxious student performers sneak a peek at their audience before the show starts.

For the 19 young Sri Lankan women, all born in one of Tamil Nadu’s 114 refugee camps, tonight is a special night. Born in extreme poverty and without the rights and privileges of Indian citizens, these girls have struggled for a normal existence.  All 19 had previously dropped out of school, and all now want a chance to excel in their communities.  Newly certified graduates of St. Joseph’s, these young women get to display their new skills to their friends and families. Decked out in clothes they have made themselves, the women beam with pride. 

Learning leadership

Brindha (23), is a teacher at St. Joseph’s.  Brindha was one of the lucky refugees permitted to live outside the camp. She graduated from an Indian government school, and is now studying for her master's degree in fashion technology.  Brindha hopes to open her own boutique someday.

Aware that the women in the refugee camps cannot hope for the graduate education she is getting, Brindha wanted to give these women some skills that they could then use to support themselves and their families. Brindha explains that the sewing skills she teaches will give these young women the confidence to understand that they are valuable and worthy of respect “I teach them drawing and stitching," she said. "But the main thing is how to believe in yourself and trust others… that is what I teach them."

As they take to the stage, all of the girls exhibit a spunky self-confidence.  They perform traditional folk dances and comedies to rousing applause. It is hard to believe that just six months ago these girls were timid and unwilling to express themselves in public. However, after several field trips to learn about women's legal rights and leadership, regular vocational training, as well as language, ecology, computer, yoga, and street-theatre classes, these girls are now developing the confidence to realise that they have the right and the duty to express their ideas.

"In a society where traditionally women were not educated and were not allowed to appear in public, these schools offer social awareness and micro-business skills in a women-friendly space", said Fr Martin Lenk, SJ, who briefly taught English at the centre.

Premila (20) graduates today; her brother and mother are here to support her.  Premila’s brother shows me his scars from a cluster bomb that exploded near him in Sri Lanka in 2009 when he was just 17. JRS paid for surgeries to remove shrapnel from his hand, arm and leg. After completing physical therapy to make his hand stronger, he is able to resume work as a painter.  "Only a few months ago we were without future,” Premila says, “I was a person with very little confidence in myself and in others. Now my brother has had the surgery to heal his hand, and I have a job. This school taught me that I can trust in myself and believe in the future."

Still a rocky road ahead

Still a refugee’s future in these camps remains uncertain. With the population at 68,000, people cluster together in small shacks. Difficulties common to  impoverished communities persist: alcoholism, early marriage, elopement, divorce, suicide, unemployment, and gender-based violence. 

"When a man drinks, he does not go for a job. This leads to depression, more drinking and violence towards the women in his family," said Lilly Pushpam, programs officer for JRS Tamil Nadu.  Though JRS works with alcohol recovery programs and otherwise attempts to alleviate problems exacerbated by poverty, the recovery remains  slow.

However, for the refugee girls of Tamil Nadu, tonight is their night.  And despite the difficulties that remain, for the first time, they have a choice in determining what the future holds in store.

Molly Mullen, JRS international communications coordinator


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