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Published in the 1-15 May 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Bringing rahat to the have-nots

Rahat Welfare Trust is changing the destiny of many poor students in Mumbai’s largest slums

By M H Lakdawala

  • Hazra bi after completing Bachelor in Social work was chosen for an exchange programme that took her to Sweden for four months for a stint at Stockholm University.

  • Shabana scored 84 percent in her SSC and caused a sensation in Bharatnagar one of the largest slums in Mumbai

  • Dr Rabia completed her MBBS with the help of Rahat Welfare Trust. Recently she donated Rs 90,000 to the same trust.

What is common to all these cases? All were motivated and financially helped by the Rahat Welfare Trust.

Irfan Merchant

Irfan Merchant with beneficiaries of RWT

When Hazra was growing up, one had to look in ten houses in Bharatnagar, to find one girl who was studying. Most of the girls drop out before they even reach 5th standard. But the formation of the Rahat Welfare Trust and the Shaheen Girls High School changed the destiny of many. "The Muslim community is down and out, and there is a great need for positive inputs," says Irfan who founded Rahat which today sponsors the education of children of 400 poor families. Around the same time Irfan was approached by a local group from Bharatnagar to help start a girl’s school. Thus Shaheen Girls High School was started.

The community is conservative so we didn’t exactly have queues, recalls Irfan,who went from door to door seeking girls who had been elbowed out of the education system. "Often I had to persuade parents. In many cases, the problem was financial and I agreed to sponsor them through the Rahat Welfare Trust".

Shaheen Girls High School started in 1992 in a makeshift hut, 57 students and two teachers. Today it is a neat structure boasting 450 girls, and handful of success stories. Thanks to the efforts of Rahat Welfare Trust and Irfan, over the last few years, Muslim women-often considered the most backward and suppressed group in Mumbai's largest slum-have begun to claim their rightful place in the classroom. With determination they are suddenly working towards MAs, MBBSs and degrees in engineering. "Our girls are moving far ahead, compared to our boys," says Irfan.

Until 10 years ago, Muslim girls from the middle and lower-middle classes were, typically, placed in Urdu medium schools and then yanked out after standard 7. "Marriage was considered all-important, so there seemed no reason for girls to be educated," says Irfan."As in most low-income groups, girls' education takes a back-seat. Barring exceptions, Muslim women have rarely had access to education."

The riots of 1992-93 proved to be the turning point, however. " For the first time, Muslim women from the chawls and slums came forward said Irfan. "The crisis demonstrated the need to shatter stereotypes and shape a better future for their children."

Ifran-understanding that riot-relief involved more than the distribution of chatais and buckets-stepped in to meet this sudden thirst." Hampered by a lack of education, these women found it impossible to even apply for a ration card and fill in the form for compensation," recalls Irfan, who initiated scholarship for the deprived section. "We want to safeguard our future before thinking of marriage," says Saira, who gives tuitions to 15 children in order to finance her M.A. "I hope to become a college lecturer."

Despite these distortions, however, educationists are jubilant about the growing tribe of qualified Muslim women. "If you educate a boy, you educate an individual," says Mr Merchant, whose trust has helped numerous young girls become doctors and computer programmers.

What distinguishes Rahat Welfare Trust from other welfare organisations is that as other organisations concentrate on helping middle class sidetracking the slum dwellers Rahat welfare trust operates and provides assistance to slum dwellers and deprived sections.

The criteria for scholarship adopted by other organisation are merit, Rahat welfare trust gives prime importance to the economic criteria. "If the applicant is poor and has bad marks to support his application we sanction scholarship. One of the reasons why he has poor marks is socio-economic condition", said Irfan.

According to Irfan, Rahat Welfare Trust is helping 250 families on a continuing basis under its Total Educational Support Scheme (TESS). Sponsoring 350 children, a majority of whom are orphans. Under TESS a child is provided with almost everything required to go to school. Rahat welfare trust provides total support to the family to ensure that the child goes to school properly.
Not only education Rahat Welfare Trust provides monthly ration for preselected poor families. Even in Ramadan these poor families in slums are provided with the iftar packets daily. 

Due to the personal efforts of Irfan Rahat Welfare Trust has developed a team of volunteers who take care of the day-to-day activities of the trust. "Since most of these volunteers are themselves the past recipients of the scholarship they easily identify with the plight of the applicants and hence the entire process from applying for scholarship to sanction is humane and maintains the dignity of the applicants" said Irfan. 

The future planning of the Rahat Welfare Trust is to focus on literacy and primary education in Mumbai slums targeting girls in particular. "Girls are the most vulnerable section of the society. In the slums they have no protection. We are striving to educate them so that they can take care of themselves," said Irfan.

"If you educate a girl, you educate a family. If this trend continues for another 10 years, I truly believe that our community will undergo a dramatic transformation."

Rahat Welfare Trust can be contacted on rahat786@hotmail.com
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