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City slum girl is Melinda’s hero

Malala Yousafzai, Hillary Clinton, Queen Rania, Sikha Patra….

Sikha who? Finding pride of place on Melinda Gates’s list of ‘The Most Inspiring Women and Girls I Met This Year’ posted on her Facebook page is a young Calcuttan making a difference in her impoverished locality in Rishi Aurobindo Colony, near Ultadanga.

The 16-year-old girl, hemmed in by global powerhouses like Hillary and Malala, has been described by Melinda thus: “Sikha Patra may only be a teenager, but she’s already changing the lives of so many people in her community in India as a peer leader and educator.”

Sikha is also among the eight women the philanthropist wife of the world’s richest man has written about in her year-end blog titled “Impatient Optimists”.

The co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation met Sikha and her best friend Salim when they attended TedxChange in Seattle on April 3, 2013. The trip was marked by the screening of The Revolutionary Optimists, a documentary film produced by Stanford University on the path-breaking work being done by Amlan Ganguly, the founder of the NGO Prayasam, empowering children like Sikha and Salim from slums and brickfields to change their own environment.

TEDxChange is a community dedicated to spreading ideas for a better world in the areas of global health and development and, in partnership with the Gates Foundation, holds interactions convened by Melinda.

Alerted by Metro about Sikha’s inclusion in the Melinda Gates list, Ganguly, “Dada” to Sikha and Salim, called up the girl’s father immediately to give her the news. Ramesh Patra, who works as a driver, did not show much emotion but mother Minati was very happy. “She had heard from me about Melinda ma’am,” Sikha beams.

After seeing the list on the Internet the next day at the Prayasam office in Salt Lake, Sikha pointed out that she had heard of Malala. “Dada had told us that she almost got killed for the spread of women’s education.”

The teenager feels strongly about gender equality. One of the questions Melinda had asked her on the Seattle stage was what change she would want to bring about in the community. Her reply was that “boys and girls be treated as equals”.

Sikha, along with her neighbour and fellow-Prayasam area health minder Prabir Saha, has even made a three-and-half-minute film using the NGO’s handheld camera on the lives of unmarried girls who were trying to stand up for themselves.

“Unwed girls in their 20s are rare in our colonies as girls are married off early. I interviewed 15 girls from five colonies in east Calcutta,” said the spunky girl.

The film, River of Life, was selected for the Adobe Youth Voices programme, held in August at Santa Clara University, San Francisco, and so Sikha flew back to the US, this time with Prabir and team leader Saptarshi Ray of Prayasam. They were among 30 youths selected globally.

Sikha, who now studies commerce at Belgachhia Manohar Academy, wants to be a filmmaker.

“My only prayer for her is that she gets to become whatever her dreams are and not get bogged down by social or family compulsions,” said Piyali Mazumdar, president of Prayasam.

For now, Sikha seems to be set on pursuing her dreams. “At the dinner table, where I sat next to her, Melinda ma’am had asked me if I believed in fate. I told her ‘my fate is what I do’,” she recalled.

No wonder Melinda Gates found her inspirational.

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