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I have long been passionate about advocating for children, even before becoming a pediatrician over 25 years ago when I fought against child abuse as a medical student. Throughout my years as a health professional, I have had countless interactions with children that have inspired me. However, an unlikely encounter with one particular child in Harijan Basti (literally "God's children"), an urban slum in Uttar Pradesh, India, changed me forever; it deepened my commitment to giving all children an opportunity to be heard and to use their voices to change their world.
The purpose of my visit was to see the work of the Urban Health Initiative and their NGO partner, Pragati Sewa Sansthan, to increase women's access to modern contraception and family planning strategies. The lot of this low-caste community was to collect and pick through trash that was heaped in the village to identify anything potentially re-sellable.
Upon arriving in the community, I was greeted by 10-year-old Masooma, a slight girl with an engaging smile, twinkling eyes, and a presence that emanated well beyond her stunted frame. She approached me with an extended hand holding a hand-made toy parrot that she signaled was for me. As we toured the community to learn about the project, she constantly stayed by my side, persistently requesting, "I want to go to school," "I want a teacher," "Please, you can help me." Her voice and sentiment were echoed and amplified by her mother and other women in the community who deeply understood the fundamental importance of education and giving their daughters opportunities that they were never afforded. Although highly appreciative of the family planning options they now had, they knew that an education was the only way their daughters could gain upward mobility and a chance for a better life.
Masooma's request was heartbreaking, as the families were living on unregistered land -- they were nonexistent on the government's books -- without access to any services. Nearby educational opportunities were unaffordable, and many of the children, including Masooma, were tasked with caring for younger siblings and assisting with trash-picking to help keep their families afloat.
Despite the overwhelming circumstances, Masooma remained unwavering and focused on her goal. She exerted her voice with repeated requests for education throughout the day. I came to learn that she greeted each new visitor to her community with that enormous smile and her unfailing, single-minded request, "I want to go to school. Can you help us get a school and a teacher?"
Project staff decided that Masooma's request required a response. Working with the government, they found a way to get the community registered and to access educational funds. Today, the children in this community -- including Masooma -- are enrolled in school as well as receiving free school lunches, books and support with their uniforms, supplies and transportation.
I'm heartened by the dedication of the project staff who took it upon themselves to listen and act with determination to make Masooma's dream a reality. However, the image of Masooma -- a bright, young girl who understood that without an education she wouldn't have the chance to live a full and productive life -- remains most deeply etched in my mind and heart. She taught me that powerful advocates can come in very small packages, and often we don't fully appreciate or listen to the individuals who know best what they need and have the most at stake. She inspired me to be not only a better development professional with a greater appreciation for partnering with communities to create holistic solutions that meet their needs but also a better listener. She also encouraged me to dream big and remain steadfast, even when aspirations seem impossible.
I moved forward from that visit a changed individual, committed to ensuring that voices like Masooma's are given a platform and the opportunity to speak for themselves as well as others in their communities. Masooma's resolute voice and unrelenting spirit enabled the government, civil society and the community to work together to secure a viable educational future for all of God's children in Harijan Basti. With advocates like Masooma in communities throughout the world, what is there that we cannot do together when voices like hers are truly heard and responded to in compassionate and creative ways?
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