Vasant Kunj, Delhi, India
Vasant Kunj, Delhi, India
M any of us have this wish to do something for the society we live in, for the needy and for social issues impacting our societies, but how far do we go to solve the problems faced by others.
Read the story of Salma Sheikh – a woman for whom there was no stopping when it came to serving the society. As an agent of change, she took the reins in her hands to not just transform her life but also the lives of thousands of people around her.
Born in a marginalized family residing in the slums of Bhopal, Salma was the eldest of the four siblings. Meeting the expenses was always a problem for the family. As a young child, she was deeply inclined towards studies and sports. Despite this inclination, she had to leave school as she was married off before she could finish her 10th.
A new home and a new life were awaiting her in Pachauri, Maharashtra. But all was not that rosy there. For a girl as old as 18, it wasn’t easy to take care of the new household with all the cleaning, cooking and other stuff on her shoulders. Still in her teens, she got pregnant but she lost her child soon after delivery. Due to heath and financial issues, she came back along with her husband to her mother’s home in Bhopal. Her mother became her pillar of strength and left no stone unturned to help Salma shape her future and stand on her feet.
After recovery, Salma volunteered with World Vision India – an NGO working towards child and maternal health. Through self-help groups, Salma dedicated herself in educating women about maternal care, reproductive health, vaccination and other pregnancy related issues.
Salma joined Aarambh, an NGO working towards sanitation, as a field coordinator and attended all their meetings and training sessions regularly to keep herself updated. She was an active resource and was widely recognized for her sincerity, dedication, hard work and will. Soon her job got permanent there and she was appointed as the president of Mohalla Committee. Her responsibilities widened with her position.
Under a programme called Shaurya Dal, Salma stood for social issues like women and child protection, prevention of and action against domestic violence and other social issues. She served as a bridge between victims and police authorities and became the voice for the needy.
After a couple of years, Salma joined Water Aid. She recalls the Water Aid officials saying, “We need people like Salma to work with us for their devotion to the cause.”
A set of people there, however, had started raising questions and doubts on her ability due to her educational background. Salma then realized the importance of education and degree. In the next couple of years, she managed to complete her 10th, 12th and graduation.
For a working woman, with a family to take care of, who had left her studies far behind, it wasn’t easy to complete her education. But she came off with flying colours. Throughout this period, her husband remained her strength and provided whatever support she needed.
As a community mobiliser with Aarambh, Salma surveyed her locality to find how many houses did not have toilets. Nearly two third of the basti did not have toilet facilities and open defecation was a major issue.
Salma initiated the task for toilet construction between 2014-2015 under PM Swachh Bharat Mission. She was a known personality by then, famous for her relentless efforts on social and sanitation issues. People from other slums had also started approaching her for toilets in their locality.
Salma became the voice for thousands of people and took the responsibility in her hands to get the toilets constructed. After conducting surveys, she approached the Nagar Nigam (Municipal Corporation) and filed the applications on their behalf. After a series of obstacles and formalities, finally the construction of toilets began.
Salma made sure that the construction material, the workers were smoothly organized. She even gave her home on rent to these people to ensure smooth functioning while avoiding delays.
Once the toilets were constructed, the next big issue was getting water connection. A series of applications and meetings followed under the Narmada Jal Yojana and finally her efforts won and the localities got water supply.
Under PSI Project by Aarambh, Salma worked with adolescents on sexual reproductive health and gender-based violence. She also provided counselling to victims of child abuse and became an advocate for mental health.
Her greatest achievement is when people say “Go to Salma Ji,” for any kind of water, sanitation or social issues.
Speaking about Amrita Dhrishti, another project by Aarambh, where she works as a volunteer, Salma says that many people are still not aware about cataract, its symptoms and after-effects. This project aims to educate the marginalized senior citizens about the same and conduct surgeries at reasonable costs.
Obstacles, objections, threats and resistance were just a few challenges that she faced in this journey. But her determination kept her going.
Salma recalls how during her school days she was much interested in sports and that she had tried every sport. She recalls that her family was not aware of her interest in sports nor of her participation in sporting events in school. Once during an inter-school competition, her father had seen her in track pants borrowed from one of her friends. She changed it there and then and participated in the long jump competition in her salwar suit. She won the third prize for the same.
She had to quit her studies and sports due to early marriage. She doesn’t want other girls in her community to face the same fate.
In 2019, Salma lost her mother. The one who had been her roots, her wings and her pillar was gone. But she chose to hold on to her mother’s teachings tightly.
On seeing her father lead a lonely life after her mother had left, Salma went ahead with her father’s remarriage – something that’s impossible for a daughter! There was a lot of resistance from her community. People said all sorts of things, but Salma was determined.
“When I see my father happy with my new mother, I feel happy for him.”
During the pandemic, Salma and her husband were involved in various types of community services. When everything had come to a stop, they tried in every possible way to make life a little easy for the people in their vicinity.
Today, Salma is busy working diligently for the betterment of her people and neighbourhood. Teaching young girls about menstrual hygiene, helping women who have been victims of domestic violence, counselling victims of child abuse, assisting women in availing loan facilities are a few ways through which Salma is making an impact in the lives of a number of people.
She is current associated with Water Aid as a consultant. When asked what she wants to do in the future, Salma says that she is passionate about serving the society and she sees herself doing only this, especially for the women folks.
A real hero for more than thousands of slumdwellers, she has proved that where is a will, there is a way.
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