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The Littlest Caregivers

Fiza gently whacked her younger sister on the back of the head to keep her moving. Sania slowed to a stop and stepped through one of dozens of make-shift doorways lining the lane. Fiza, following closely behind her sister, grabbed her t-shirt and forcefully pulled her back out and Sania tripped backward over the uneven ground until she could shake her sister free.

Fiza (in red) and Sania playing at Indu's Tuition Centre.

Sania in her home.

After attending Indu’s morning tuition class, they had been instructed by their young mother (who would be at work cleaning homes until at least six o’clock) to go home to their hut situated on the back side of the slum overlooking the gutter - its black, oozing, thick liquid a mixture of water run-off, sewage and garbage. On the broken tiled floor their mother left some dal and rice in two separate pots, some matches to light the kerosene burner to heat the food, and a few pieces of cloth strewn about to put between them and the uneven floor to take an afternoon nap on.

Sania in the 'kitchen' area of her family's one room hut.

Fiza struck a match and lit the burner to heat the dal while Sania took the lid off the rice and plopped two large portions onto each plate. They use a small spoon to dip into the warmed dal and dribble it over their plate of rice. Sitting cross-legged on the floor they mindlessly mix the rice and dal with their fingers and scoop the food into their mouths. They chat with each other and giggle, but mostly they eat quickly. Kids who live nearby pop in and out, sometimes squatting to help themselves to a few morsels of the dal-soaked rice. When they finish eating, they wipe their mouths with the bottom of their t-shirt and rinse their plates over the gutter that runs beside their hut using a shared hose. They scrub their feet of grime collected on filthy pathways, have a bucket bath, and sweep their hut. Outside their curtained doorway there are a twenty or thirty kids chasing each other in the dusty gravel of a make-shift parking lot used by office workers from nearby buildings. They join them to run around, always barefoot, to create games, make toys out of garbage fished from the gutter and spend the few rupees their mother left them on candy from the nearby stall owned by their neighbour. Fiza is six years old. Sania is four. They are fearless, as capable as someone twice their age, and fiercely protective of one another.

Sometimes their petite, very young mother, who works long days cleaning homes nearby, will lock them in the hut when she is worried about their safety, leaving them food and water, and for company, a small T.V with more static than clarity to watch Hindi cartoons. There are no Fisher Price toys, computers, bouncy beds, or paid caregivers to keep them safe, nourished and out of trouble. Fiza and Sania are tough, resilient little girls, already hardened by poverty and the harsh regimen of daily living in a slum community without basic amenities. Thankfully, their mornings are spent in Indu’s Tuition Centre, learning English, drawing, painting and playing with other kids under Indu’s patient, loving, watchful eyes.

Sania (red t-shirt), Fiza (saluting) outside their home with friends, Noorsaba (front) and Suhana.

Ruksar lives a few doors away. She has never attended school because since she could carry a child on her hip she has mothered her five siblings. While her parents work long days, the burden of child-care and house-keeping fall to Ruksar. Her mornings are spent getting her three younger siblings ready for school, cooking rice and dal, hand-washing the family’s clothing in a bucket and hanging it on a rope strung inside the rusted tin walled home. She only leaves the community to walk her brothers and sister to school - a bittersweet, chaotic, daily ritual. She is intelligent and noticeably jealous of her younger siblings who have been allowed to go to school and play in the lane ways, but she is also stoic. She knows she is capable of learning much more than the drudgery of cooking and cleaning and that she will soon face an arranged marriage. Quiet and eerily obedient, she has just begun to challenge her parent’s authority which has hardened her once soft-spoken, malleable personality. With a knowing sadness in her eyes and skittish anxiety, she knows this behaviour won’t go unpunished in her traditional home. Within a few years, when her younger sisters can take over her duties, she will be the wife in an arranged marriage and then a young mother attending to the wishes of her husband and his mother and her future children. Ruksar is twelve years old.

Ruksar's youngest sibling, Rehan. He is her responsibility for up to 10 hours a day.

The chubby baby’s head flops dangerously to the side. Only a few months old, she is being carted up and down the laneways, handed off to kids as young as four while her mother works in her slum home attaching widgets to screws for a few rupees a day. Clothed in a tiny t-shirt, her bottom left bare, the baby only requires a smattering of attention and rarely cries. The dirty fingers and scabby arms of her young babysitters embrace her and comfort her. She is miraculously well-cared for and attended to by numerous random children and only brought back to her mother when she requires breastfeeding. I reached out, wanting to hold this bundle of sweetness, and the current little caregiver opened her arms and dropped her into my lap where she momentarily gasped and then settled into a gentle sleep on my lap despite the noise, dust and utter chaos surrounding her.

Bathtime in a slum home - kids looking after kids.

Iram is surrounded by up to seven kids, some are cousins, some are the children of neighbours - all under six years old. The slum home is dark, dank, and dishevelled. Strewn about the one-room hut are piles of clothing, a few pots on a wooden shelf and blankets piled in a corner hiding one more child who is playing hide and seek. Iram who is about ten years old and her young cousin are the care-givers for their brothers and sisters and a few neighbourhood kids who drop by to watch the little television sitting on bricks in a corner. The two girls are also responsible for a months old baby and take turns holding it on their bony hips looking every bit as experienced and motherly as their mothers. Iram gets a break every afternoon when she attends Indu’s Tuition class.

Sticking together -these girls look after one another while their parents work.

These kids, all of them just small children themselves, have responsibilities most adults would gripe about in living conditions that are dismal, dirty and bleak. I see them every day, wandering aimlessly, babies on their hips, wiping their own and others snotty noses on shirt sleeves, cajoling and dusting siblings off when they fall and slapping them when they need discipline. (Slapping is an accepted, common form of discipline in the slum). I watch them share whatever they have, feed their siblings first, braid their hair, fix their clothes, give them bucket baths and casually drape their arms around each other. Somehow in a slum community rife with sharp objects for bare feet to step on, wobbly make-shift, narrow bridges to fall from headfirst into the gutter below, long sticks to poke eyes out with and a parking lot full of cars coming and going to play in, accidents requiring hospital visits are rare. Kids born into slums and on the pavement seem to have an inherent ability to survive what most of us wouldn’t. I’m astounded by their ability to navigate chaotic traffic to get to the other side of Saki Vihar road, siblings in tow, while I hesitate and get excited when I make it to the other side intact without meeting a bus head-on. They often wait for me and clap when I make it. Sometimes they grab my hand and pull me with them. Sibling rivalry is rare, sharing and caring is expected and parents are obeyed. There is no stomping of feet or wanting what they can’t have, despite being surrounded by advertisements and middle class and wealthy people living in apartments that overlook their slum community.

Ruksar (with Indu's child Aagya) at 12 years old is already an experienced care-giver.

I am wistful and wishful about the future of these tiny caregivers. I ache for them to have choices but I sadly realize that unless they get an education their futures will be more of the same. The absence of birth-control methods by India’s poor caused by traditional cultural norms which only benefit men, the lack of education, the effect of caste, the hype and doctrine of religions, and the utter desire to have at least one boy child, leaves women no power over their bodies and heaves young girls into the abyss of arranged marriages when they should be allowed a childhood with the benefit of an education. In Saki Naka there are hundreds of small girls acting as caregivers for younger siblings who are looking at bleak futures via the smudged mirror of their mother’s lives. While some girls are allowed to go to school, it is with trepidation that parents allow this great gift of education for their female offspring. There is a saying in India, “Raising a girl child is like watering someone else’s garden”.

Sania (in red), Fiza (in blue) and their young mother.

The Dirty Wall Project strives to convince parents to give girls a chance, to remove traditional obstacles, to enable brighter futures for their families. We try to convince them (with a commitment to pay school fees) to give children, especially the girls, a childhood with ABC’s instead of childcare and drudgery. Despite limitations placed on them by caste and poverty, I still have hope that there might be a place for them in “Future India”.

The Dirty Wall Project paid school fees for 31 girls (43 boys) for the 2014/15 school year (average fees per child: 6375 rupees (CAD$125 per year)

The Dirty Wall Project financially supports Indu’s Tuition centre which is free to any kid wandering the laneway providing them a safe place to play and learn.

-current monthly rent - 3200 rupees (CAD $62)

-books, pencils, miscellaneous supplies - 300 rupees (CAD $6.80) per month

-mixed nuts as a daily snack for each child - 2300 rupees (CAD $46) per month

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