In January of last year, I was introduced to Anjum, one of our Leaders’ Quest Fellows. We met at a residential Quest Fellowship training session in Pune (150 km from Mumbai) and it soon transpired that this was her first trip away from home. I was struck by her shyness, her gutsiness, her anxiety, her confidence and her youth – coupled with a strong sense of maturity. Recently, we caught up again – over a cup of mango juice in her village – and for Anjum, the memories and experiences of her initial training seemed etched on her mind as if they’d just happened. I was struck by how, in the months since we’d met, she’d completely transformed herself and set her life on a new path to help others. This is her story….
Anjum was 15 years old when she dropped out of school and set about earning some money as a teacher in a balwadi (crèche) which she operated out of the family home in an eastern Mumbai suburb. Living alongside her mother and four extremely protective brothers, she was encouraged to make a living by staying put, rather than venturing out into the community for work. The years rolled by and soon she was married with a son, called Huzeifa.
At 21, Anjum’s curiosity got the better of her, and she started turning up at local community meetings held by social workers from the Women’s Empowerment Programme run by the NGO CORO India. Listening to these women talk about their rights, their role in the community, their right to equality guaranteed by the constitution and the different initiatives open to them, she realised what she was missing. Shakila, one of the programme leaders, picked up on Anjum’s enthusiasm, saw her potential and encouraged her to take the big step of applying for a place on the Quest Fellowship Programme (run by Leaders’ Quest in partnership with CORO). This would mean attending residential training alongside other men and women – an idea which made Anjum incredibly uncomfortable. But Shakila encouraged her to submit the application form and eventually she agreed.
The day of the interview came around and, worried that her family would tell her not to go, let alone enrol as a Quest Fellow – Anjum decided to miss the appointment. But something unexpected happened. When her mother found out what had happened, she told her that she should have gone to the interview. Anjum had underestimated her! Her mother wanted to support her daughter in breaking down traditional barriers, giving her exposure to the outside world and teaching her skills to get ahead in life. This meant so much to Anjum, who made up her mind to reapply the following year.
In January 2015, Anjum successfully joined 89 new grassroots leaders enrolled on the Quest Fellowship Programme, along with their mentors and the CORO facilitator team. To make this first journey to Pune, she left behind her husband – against his wishes – and their three-year old son, and made the journey, hoping to give her life more meaning.
Her first session focused on gender and identity and she, like most of the other women in the room, was nervous about sitting next to men she didn’t know or holding hands with them during exercises. But, by the end of the four-days, she felt much more confident about herself, her identity and her role as a woman in the community.
As we sat together reminiscing, she told me: “For me, gender meant only male and female, but during the training I understood the true meaning of gender and all that it encompasses – other genders, atrocities against gender, rights and responsibilities, etc. On the first day of the training all the girls were seen sticking together as a group and not interacting with any men. The trainers through different ice-breakers and sessions helped break down this barrier and encouraged us to get comfortable with each other so that we could interact freely without any prejudices”.
Soon after she completed her first training module and went back to her old life in Mumbai, Anjum’s husband came home one night and started getting violent with her in front of their son. He often came home drunk or high on drugs, ready for a fight, itching to abuse her mentally and physically. But on this particular night, Anjum found herself at a crossroads. She’d had enough. In the middle of the night, she left the house, taking her three year-old with her. She made her way to the nearest police station and – using the very training she’d gained as a Quest Fellow – she lodged a complaint against her husband. A few hours later, the police arrested him. Anjum followed up with an official separation, through skilful use of her constitutional rights, and gained custody of her son.
Anjum spent the rest of her fellowship picking up skills to help her grow as a leader. Things like community mapping, resource mobilisation, the Right to Information Act, and advocacy initiatives. She felt herself grow as a person, taking on the problems of other women – the very women who were still suffering behind closed doors, the way she used to.
In January 2016, she completed her fellowship, capping a year during which she’d formed a peer working group of 11 women, 16 girls and 15 boys to work alongside her on community initiatives. Today she advocates for abused wives and can often be found at the police station, helping others to file complaints, and following up by registering court cases and organising counselling. She’s also moved back to live with her mother and brothers, who look after Huzeifa while she keeps busy with her community work.
Writing this today, I realise I can’t wait for my next check-in with Anjum. I’ll ask her how she’s getting on with overseeing the new toilet block which, after a long process, is finally being built in the neighbouring community. And I’ll find out what the other community women are up to. We’ll have lots to talk about. I’m getting used to hearing extraordinary stories about Leaders’ Quest fellows – but I’ll still have to pinch myself to remember the Anjum I met 16 months ago, living a life that seems worlds away, on her first trip away from home.