Yes I Can.
Twenty Six year old Sumitra is busy pedaling a whirring sewing machine giving final touches to a brand new dress for a waiting customer. She is oblivious to the fact that she is physically challenged with one of her legs not fully fit. Behind her frail figure springs forth a resolute and an uncanny determination to be self-dependent. A few moments later the happy customer receives her dress and makes the required payment to Sumitra. “She is very efficient and also charges less than the other tailors in the market…so we prefer to have our dresses done by her,” quips her customer. Sumitra hands over the amount to her mother (Pramila Behera). A smile escapes through the corner of her lips and she blesses her daughter. “My girl has shown everybody that disability cannot be a barrier and she is in no way inferior to the abled ones. She has changed my world view…our world view…we are all proud of her.”
Success for Sumitra was hard earned. Together with her family she had to undergo the travails of extreme poverty. She also had to take on the conservative mindset of her household that did not allow girls to go to school or even work.
In a small village called Dayavihar in Gadasahi panchayat of Kanas block in Puri, Sumitra lives with her parents and one brother. Poverty forced her brother to discontinue his studies from class eight and support his father in earning. They had to manage with whatever meagre income came from fishing. Her father worked on another’s boat as they did not have enough finances to have their own boat or fishing net.
These were difficult times and Sumitra was at the formative age of six years – a time when she started weaving her dreams. She wanted to go to school just like her other friends. But her disability came in the way and her father, Meghanad Behera would not allow. He would say, “Education for you is worthless … What will you do after study? You cannot walk properly, how will you go to school, and who will take care of you … there is no scope for a disabled person in this world…”Yet she did not lose hope. Somehow she was able to convince her mother but it was very difficult with her father and brother. Many a times she would argue at home and cry.
She remembers, “So badly I wanted to go to school that I would desperately cry my heart out before them … but they wouldn’t listen … and I did not give up…” Her elder brother, Bhagirathi Behera adds as a matter of fact, “Life was tough for us … money did not come easily. So when she would pester us for school, I would often get annoyed … and scold her…”
Her cry was heard one day when, in the year 1996, NSP organized a community meeting in the village and talked about education, health and child rights and programs of ChildFund. Sumitra was enrolled under the ChildFund sponsorship program along with Twenty Four other children from the village. Her parents were still in doubt as many advised them against taking such step. Village Committee member Meena Behera talked to Sumitra’s parents and convinced them. Sumitra’s persistent appeal finally melted their hearts and her father allowed her to go to school. She was admitted in Benagaon Primary School. Through NSP-ChildFund she was given all kinds of assistance for her education. She says, “They provided me tri-cycle, school bag, books, copies, pen, shoes, dress, free tuition, egg, banana, apple, cheese … and playing materials too. I never missed school … when I was in Class 10 they gave me Rs. 100 each month for my tuitions … I had then decided not to sit idle after completing school. But I could not pass Matriculation even after appearing twice. Then I decided to stand on my own legs by doing something else.”
As an active member of the child club Sumitra participated in various activities and worked for the fulfilment of child rights in her village. She spearheaded rallies and awareness drives in the village regarding girl child education, early marriage and adolescent health. She convinced parents and induced many other girls to go to school. She also educated mothers regarding safe hygienic practices and right nutrition for infants and children. In the midst of all this she never lost sight of her aim to be self-dependent after passing out of school. By then she had already decided to earn her living through tailoring work and contribute to her family’s wellbeing.
In 2007 ChildFund constituted a youth club with fifteen members and organized a skill development workshop in the village. This youth club named ‘Prerna Yuvak Sangh’ opened the doors of opportunity for Sumitra. She regularly participated in the monthly meetings of the club and as an active member carried on the constructive works that she used to during her child club days. She engaged herself in preparing for the next round of battle. At home she helped her mother in household work and through the youth club she helped young girls and mothers of her village to sort out matters regarding hygiene, nutrition, reproductive health and violence against women. She put to instant practice whatever she learnt from NSP-ChildFund.
She remembers, “When I first attended the various programs of NSP-ChildFund, it felt very good. I became more confident and wanted to help others … It gave me strength to succeed and increased my determination to stand on my own feet…”
She convinced her mother to enrol in the LEEP program and become an SHG member. As member of Mahavir SHG her mother received as loan an initial amount of Rs. 4000 for agriculture and Rs. 600 for irrigation. Later she received Rs. 12,000 which they used to get fishing net and a boat of their own. Soon they had their own business and their economic condition became better.
Her brother admits, “Initially I was wrong about my sister (Sumitra) … she showed great understanding and maturity and because of her only our economic condition has improved … now I support her fully.”
After guiding her family to a stable income Sumitra turned towards herself. She attended a workshop on career counselling and for six months underwent free training on tailoring in the NSP training institute. In 2011 ChildFund offered a financial assistance of Rs. 2000 to buy a sewing machine. With it she started her own tailoring unit. In 2014 she upgraded herself with a month’s training on handicrafts for which NSP provided support.
Today Sumitra earns on an average Rupees Five Thousand per month from her tailoring and handicrafts work and she happily contributes to her family income. Savita Chhotray, who taught her tailoring work proudly says, “Sumitra is one of the brightest children … she is a fast learner … she is different. From day one, I knew she would stand out among all. Her determination was visible. Not only did she learn the trade quickly, she also started helping her training mates…”
Sumitra has not stopped there at her tailoring unit. She has gone on to give training on tailoring and stitching to four other young girls of her community. Manju, one of her trainees says, “Whatever Didi (Sumitra) has done, it has inspired us a lot … she has fought and won her personal battle … whenever we require any support she is there for us even at odd hours… she is our role model.”
Meena Behera says, “Other people in the village also give Sumitra’s example to their children that if she can overcome her disability and become successful, why can’t you? Now other girls who could not complete Matriculation are demanding vocational training from NSP so that they too could be like Sumitra.”
Acknowledging her success, Sumitra’s mother says, “We were always concerned about her … today I am happy that she can manage herself…My daughter has decided not to marry and I respect her decision” Her father adds, “We thought her to be a burden … that she would have to depend on us forever, but she has done the opposite. Now she is self -dependent and helping us financially … in a way, we are dependent on her… I am proud to say that I have kept a piece of land in her name so that she can fulfil her dream to be a successful entrepreneur.”
Sumitra does not forget to give credit to NSP-ChildFund for supporting her at every stage. With their support she is busy weaving bigger dreams today. She wants to be an entrepreneur by starting a tailoring institute of her own. For this she enthusiastically seeks support from everybody. She says, “I want to show to the world that nothing is impossible. If there is determination even a disabled girl like me can become successful in life … Yes I can!”