Neelam Rai, a 19-year old from Rahatgaon, a small village near Harda in Madhya Pradesh, is also a karate player. A few years ago, there was a karate camp in her school where basics of the sport were taught. Once the camp got over, Rai realised she had developed an interest in the sport and wanted to pursue it further. Unfortunately, her school provided her with no such amenity; she was left on her own.
When she shared this with her family, her father blatantly refused, even as her mother stood by her. Rai comes from a set-up where girls are married off by the time they turn 18 or 19, and sending them for higher education is a distant dream. As she herself says, “When you walk down the lanes of my village, you will hardly find anything unusual, but once you live here, you will know that in every house resides a young girl who has dropped out of school because there are boys in the streets who tease her and touch her. You will find girls who don’t step out of their homes after sunset, married off before they turn 18, and silenced every time they express their wishes or desires. Growing up in this environment was excruciating, even if my parents wanted to support me, the society wouldn’t let them.”
However, Rai after being introduced to karate – wanted to learn the sport. She reached out to her coach, who gladly took her on. However, she was also faced with financial constraints. Rai’s father worked as a helper in local buses and did not earn enough. “After attending the karate camp, I realised that training in karate is what I needed to defend myself against everyone and everything that could possibly hamper my aspirations,” she adds.
At this time, she found out about Project Udaan, a programme run by a local NGO called Synergy Sansthan, aimed at ‘enabling’ young girls by providing them financial help as well as mentorship. After associating with this programme, Rai says she got the support and encouragement to chase her dreams. With the required financial backing, she could travel to her karate academy, buy equipment, enroll in competitions and tournaments, and also afford a diet to supplement her sport. Most importantly, she didn’t have to rely on her father’s meagre salary.
But this was not enough; she had to constantly face the wrath of her community and neighborhood, who couldn’t come to terms with her wanting something bigger and better for herself. The society shunned her, and her family; dissuading them for allowing Rai to train and to follow her dreams. Through all of this, she had the support of the team at Synergy. Ajay Pandit, Co-founder, Synergy Sansthan, adds, “What disheartened me the most was that these young tribal girls didn’t know what it was like to have a dream, and we wanted to design a programme that would inspire them to desire and then equip them to fulfill those desires. Neelam’s journey inspires me to enable many more girls like her.”
Pandit says Synergy was able to help Rai and other like her through the C3 Unniti Small Grants Program, which provides financial and technical support to grass-root organisations who are aimed at transforming the lives of women and girls. Richa Sundra, Project Manager, C3 Unniti Small Grants Program, says, “C3 Unniti is constantly collaborating with projects aimed at catalysing the growth of individuals, which lead to the growth of the society at large. Working with and watching Mamta excel in her sport has been an awe-inspiring experience.”
Based on the philosophy of using small grants to create big impacts, Unniti – ever since it was set up in 1989 – is working on a micro-philanthropic model in the areas of education, health and sustainable livelihood skills.
Today, Rai has become an assistant coach at the same school where she learnt karate. She has participated in national level karate tournaments and won numerous awards across the country. She not only continues her training, she also teaches karate to kids in her village. She has become self-dependent and set an example for all the other young girls in her community. “With all the mentoring I have received, I have also been able to find my father a new, better paying job to help with our financial situation. The same people who mocked my parents now come to them asking for their children to be enrolled in my karate classes,” she says.