January 27, 2021
Nakeem*, a Rohingya living in a refugee settlement in India, grew up in a society where men take care of matters outside the home and women are confined to their houses, expected to be submissive and compliant. This was the only life Nakeem had ever known. He was following his forefathers’ lifestyle by resolving family conflict through violence and religious authority. At the age of 35, living in a foreign country and having a young daughter, things were about to change.
Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI) has been providing services to the Rohingya community in India since 2018. First, through an after-school program, later through counseling and healthcare services. Our aim is to provide educational opportunities for vulnerable children and support families on their path to self-sufficiency. When we first met Nakeem, he had no interest in our work and little willingness to allow his daughter to participate. His behavior was no different than most men in the community who believed women should not be educated or participate in public events. This included playing with other children, going to school and speaking in front of men.
These were the circumstances young Fathima, Nakeem’s 4-year-old daughter, was facing every day. The challenges girls face around the world to grow up educated and successful are staggering. Women currently make up more than two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate people, according to the United Nations.
And, only 39% of girls living in rural communities are able to attend school at the secondary level. The only path forward available to many young girls is to be married at an early age. One out of three girls in the Global South, or about 12 million worldwide, are married as children, before the age of 18.
Initially, Nakeem’s community received more than just education and food assistance. Messages of good hygiene and self-respect were shared, and relationships built with families. Community members began interacting and, before long, several women started participating in activities at the community center.
In the summer of 2019, a team of CERI volunteers, in partnership with a local hospital, organized a mobile clinic in the community. Doctors gave checkups to the residents and nurses administered medicine and filled out prescriptions. Some women in the community encouraged their neighbors to get checkups and began helping the doctors with translation. The whole community of 260+ residents had been served and their immediate medical needs addressed. And just as importantly, something changed inside Nakeem during that time.
One day, Nakeem walked through the doors of the community center and asked staff to teach his daughter, Fathima. He said, “I want her to become a doctor.”
At the mobile clinic, Nakeem had seen, for the first time in his life, women-doctors helping people in his community. He was struck by the realization that education was a real opportunity for Fathima and his family. Soon after, other men followed Nakeem’s example and brought their wives and daughters to the education center.
“I will do whatever I can to support my daughter,” Nakeem said.
After that, Nakeem’s wife started bringing Fathima to the center every day, encouraging her to learn new things. Nakeem’s attitude at home had also changed as he became less strict and more understanding.
There are still major needs in Fathima’s life and community, however, a shift has started with her father’s change of heart. Nakeem was exposed to a new lifestyle and, after contemplating change for a while, he was ready to embrace it. A new door of opportunity is now open for marginalized children and women. Let us not cease stepping in for the oppressed, volunteering to help others and modeling all that is good and positive.
Or, as the Apostle Paul indicates in Galatians 6:9, “[l]et us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
To keep children safe, to offer girls the chance to go to school, to strengthen families and keep them together, we need your partnership.
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.