India: early-school leavers grab their second chance
21 September 2012

Premila and Beham, 20 and 17 year of age respectively, perform a Sri Lankan folk dance to initiate the graduation ceremony of the twenty-third group of women from the Saint Joseph's Tailoring School in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. The 19 young women completed this six-month course in tailoring, embroidery, gardening, cooking, English and computer skills. (Molly Mullen/JRS)
I teach them drawing and stitching, but the main thing is how to believe in yourself and trust others.
Trichy, 21 September 2012 – As the lights dimmed in the auditorium of Saint Joseph's Tailoring School an electric vibe filled the building as 19 young Sri Lankan refugee women peeked through the curtains at their family members and teachers in the audience before their graduation ceremony commenced. This mid-September night a special moment for these women, all born to impoverished families in one of the 114 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu.

Growing up they were denied the rights granted to Indians and struggled to eek out a living after dropping out of school at a tender age. However, a few years ago, they received another chance when they enrolled in St Joseph's Tailoring School. Before the ceremony began, the recent graduates were beaming with pride when performing traditional dance and comedy performances to friends and family and decked out in the clothing they had designed and crafted.

Learning leadership. Brindha, a 23-year-old teacher at St Joseph's, is one of the fortunate refugees permitted by the authorities to live outside the camp. She graduated from an Indian government school and is now studying for her master's degree in fashion technology with dreams of opening her own boutique.

Aware that the women in the refugee camps struggle to attain the same level of education she has received, Brindha wanted to give these women skills they could use to support themselves and their families. Brindha emphasised the importance of not only teaching sewing skills to the women but also giving them the confidence to understand that they are valuable and worthy of respect.

"I teach them drawing and stitching, but the main thing is how to believe in yourself and trust others", she explained.

As they took to the stage, the young women each exhibited spirited self-confidence that roused the audience to applause. It was hard to believe that just six months ago they were timid and unwilling to express themselves in public. However, after several field trips introducing issues such as ecology, women's legal rights and leadership, and classes on literacy skills, computers studies, and street theatre, these young women are now developing the confidence to realise their rights and 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 small-business skills in a women-friendly space", said Fr Martin Lenk, SJ, who briefly taught English at the centre.

Premila's mother and brother supported her on this special day. Her brother had scars from a cluster bomb that exploded near him in Sri Lanka in 2009 when he was only 17. JRS paid for his surgery that removed shrapnel from his hand, arm and leg. After physiotherapy, he is now able to resume work as a painter.

"Only a few months ago we were without future, 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 I can trust in myself and believe in the future", said Premila.

A rocky road ahead. The future of many refugees residing in these camps remains uncertain. With the population at 68,000, people cluster together in small shacks and live with difficulties common to impoverished communities: alcoholism, early marriage, divorce, suicide, unemployment and gender-based violence.

"When a man drinks, he doesn't work. This leads to depression, more drinking and violence towards the women in his family", said Lilly Pushpam, JRS programmes officer in Tamil Nadu.

JRS also implements alcohol recovery and poverty alleviation programmes, but the progress remains slow. However, the refugee girls of Tamil Nadu, tonight is their night.  And despite the difficulties that remain, for the first time, they are playing a positive role in determining their futures.

Molly Mullen, communications consultant, JRS International




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James Stapleton
international.communications@jrs.net
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