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Self-sufficiency saga: Skills for slums

It was born out of an urgent need to help thousands of Bangladeshi refugees fleeing their homes in 1971. After being registered in 1974, Cathedral Relief Service (CRS) turned to helping the slum-dwellers of Calcutta. Literacy programmes, mobile medical clinics and vocational training courses were set up. In its 30th year, the organisation claims to have touched the lives of over a quarter-million people, in 16 city slums, from Dum Dum to Ahiripukur.

In the past year, 763 kids were provided education, through eight schools, and streetchildren were introduced to art, craft, dance, music and drama. Via the One-Child-Through-School sponsorship programme, 49 kids were placed in formal schools, and 20 children were sent to the Nehru Children’s Museum creative arts course, Ankur.

“Not all of them can be integrated into formal schools. But once the parents realise the importance of education, they make sure it happens,” explains Bidisha Pillai, resource and programme adviser, CRS.

Parent-teacher meetings are conducted, and personal and group sessions to counsel guardians are organised. Teachers, drawn from the local communities, are trained to keep them updated with learning techniques. And at adult literacy centres for nearly 200 women, health, legal rights, environment and globalisation are also covered.

Skill development courses on embroidery, knitting, cutting, stitching and tailoring are imparted to around 650 current trainees through 17 craft centres, and to about 50 students in seven machine-knitting centres. “The aim is empowerment and self-sustaining community projects for economic stability. We want to provide just overall assistance and monitoring, to enable ownership through community participation,” adds Pillai.

As part of Arunadoy, the women are trained, raw materials provided and finished products marketed through private outlets. Three centres provide income generation opportunities to 205 women. Mahila Samitis encourage them to meet and discuss their problems. Currently, there are 10 self-help groups with 221 members.

CRS also provides training to differently-able people through the Training Centre for Disabled persons. Skills such as tailoring, needlework, embroidery, doll-making and book-binding are imparted. They are then given sewing machines, book-binding tools and cash incentives to help start something on their own.

Health is another focus area. “We hold regular camps on matters like malaria and HIV/AIDS. We emphasise on community-based public health interventions, ranging from health education to preventive approaches to mobile medical clinics,” explains Pillai. Mobile medical clinics operate in slums to provide basic healthcare. Last year, 7,518 persons received medical support. Education in hygiene, sanitation and infectious disease was imparted, and school health camps held.

Safe birth practices, newborn care and nutrition, immunisation and breast-feeding promotion are part of the mother-and-child healthcare programme. The well-baby clinics held in 2002 covered 1,850 babies and 1,552 mothers. In addition, 1,761 babies were immunised.

Keeping in mind the aim of empowerment last year, training was given on issues like legal aid and child rights to gender discrimination and management skills. Resource mobilisation, refresher courses for teacher’s including environmental science, child psychology, class administration, vocational skills, new teaching methods and paper re-cycling were also provided.

Keeping them busy now is the violence against women week being observed in association with six other NGOS. “We are participating in it for the first time. In fact, the final day’s events will take place on the St Paul’s Cathedral grounds,” concludes Pillai.

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