Video Editor: Deepthi Ramdas
Camera: Sanjoy Deb, Gautam Sharma
Senior Editor: Shelly Walia
(In our video series, 'लड़की हूं... पढ़ना चाहती हूं – India's Girls Out of School,' we are bringing you stories of girls from across the country who were forced to discontinue education and pushed into early marriages or work. From Madanpur Khadar in Delhi, we went to Govandi in Mumbai, and are planning to tell these stories from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal as well. Support us to help us complete this series, so that one of the most ignored stories of the pandemic can be told.)
Tabassum Shaikh replays in her min the last time she stepped into her school – every night before sleeping. She remembers how carefree she was, attending school everyday, dancing at campus events, preparing to give her Class 10 exams – with high hopes and dreams of becoming a police officer.
On 20 March 2020, her school in Mumbai's Govandi area shut its doors due to coronavirus induced lockdown. Within days, Tabassum's mother, who was employed as a security guard in a famous Mumbai mall, lost her job as well.
Tabassum and her two younger siblings were forced to drop out of school. She took up a job as a COVID caretaker in a hospital – she cleaned toilets, took care of patients infected with the virus, and played her role in supporting her family.
But she repeatedly stresses that it was not her "mother's fault, but the pandemic's" that she was forced to dropout.
That she may never return to learn, or finish her Class 10 exams in open category – haunts the 18-year-old everyday.
"I wanted to fulfil my mother's dreams. In patient care, you need to clean diapers of COVID patients. I had to clean their toilets. It is not just about taking care of patients. There are many aspects to it – it is also like housekeeping. I never thought I'll do all this. We realised a lot of things during the lockdown. But it is not my mother's fault I am not in school."Tabassum Shaikh to The Quint
The Many Broken Dreams of Govandi
Tabassum's is not the only such story in Govandi, one of the lesser privileged neighbourhoods in India's financial capital. Feeding From Far, an NGO, which helped feed the families during the two COVID waves, told us how in the narrow lanes, lies many stories of how pandemic and poverty pushed many girls out of school.
Falak Shah, 8, is one of these girls. Falak was forced to drop out of school after her father lost his job as a graphic designer in 2020. But she isn't even old enough to take up an odd job. She is learning a bare minimum thanks to her older brother Farhan who is just 14 years of age.
"I was in Class 2 and so were my friends. But after I stopped going to school, my friends went to Class 3 but I am still in Class 2."Falak Shah told The Quint, looking up with a smile
Similarly, 13-year-old Maryam Shaikh too was forced to drop out of Class 4 after her father fell ill during the pandemic – pushing the family to a state where they could barely afford their meals, let alone a phone.
"The teacher used to ask why I did not attend online classes. I told him we are poor. Where will we afford a phone? He used to ask why not? That's why I am not able to study. I want to study."
'Best Days of My Life'
When The Quint team visited Tabassum in December 2021, after a lead from an NGO, she was no longer employed. Her sisters and her, along with their mother, now take on odd jobs like making paper bags for big companies, to sustain the family.
"When I used to go to school... they were the best of days. I used to go to school, listen to what the teachers said with full attention. I miss my school days a lot. I remember coming back home, studying again, and going back to class. I liked it very much," Tabassum told The Quint.
Her dream to return to school is strongly backed by her mother Shabana Ansa Shaikh, but she has no means to send her daughter to a classroom, until she finds stable employment.
"It was very difficult. I never thought that I would have to make my children do this kind of work. I thought that I will work and will never have to make my children go out for work. I wanted my girls to just go to school and come back home. I wanted to make them study a lot."Shabana Ansa Shaikh to The Quint
'Want Nothing More Than My Daughter To Study': Falak's Mom
Almost everyday Falak asks her mother when she would return to school – as she sees little girls in uniform from her window. But Falak's mother Farah Shah, who supports her graphic designer husband by making ribbons, has no answer.
"My children often tell me that they want to go to school. But we have to manage like that. Five people – Falak, her two brothers and us, have to manage food with Rs 5,000 every month," Farah Shah told The Quint.
"We did not actually tell her to leave school altogether. But we told her that her father is facing some crisis and she can join school later. It’s not like we will not give them education at all, we try our best. Since my husband is facing crisis, my children have to adjust. I want nothing more than for her to go to school."
Falak studies everyday with the help of her elder brother, who has also dropped out of school. "I want to become a doctor and help everyone," Farah said, with a smile on her face and hope in her eyes.
'Want To Become a Teacher': Maryam
From attending classes everyday, Maryam now assists her mother who works as a domestic help – to sustain her family. Her almost 50-year-old mother was pushed to seek employment after Maryam's father became bed-ridden due to chronic diabetes during the pandemic.
"I don't want to trouble my parents to buy a phone. But if I could, I would like to go to school and become a teacher," Maryam told The Quint.
So, what does she do during the day?
"I go to work with my mother and help her in sweeping the floors. When my mother gets tired working, I ask her to sit and take up her work. Even though my mother asks me not to work, I take water in a bucket and start cleaning the floors."
Speaking to The Quint, her mother Sultana explains, "I tell her that it is beyond us to be able to afford her education. When she sees children studying in private schools, she feels like studying as well."
It is no doubt that pandemic has set back years of progress made, when it comes to girls' education. Physical schools may have reopened, but there are thousands of Tabassums, Falaks, and Maryams across India whose dreams will remain shattered.
The question to ask here is not why the families have taken such decision, but to ask what are the policymakers doing to ensure that the girls will return to school?