Meet N. Vijayalakshmi, 18. Until last year, this resident of India’s fireworks capital – the Sivakasi district of Tamil Nadu – was rolling crackers. Today, Vijayalakshmi is living in Chennai and studying to become a nurse at the V.H.S. Campus of the M.A. Chidambaram College of Nursing, with financial support from Udavum Ullangal, a Chennai-based organisation working extensively to empower underprivileged girls with education and jobs.
Today Vijayalakshmi shudders to think what her life would have been had she continued to roll crackers in her village. She says, “I used to roll out crackers from home. Factory owners had a work-from-home arrangement. We were never given gloves. I had to scoop in the chemicals with my bare hands and ended up inhaling quite a bit of the harmful chemicals. Now that I am studying nursing I understand how much I was at risk.”
Vijayalakshmi feels she is one of the lucky few who managed to escape the oppressive environment. She stays at the college hostel, along with a few girls from her own district and some from other towns. “Back home, only affluent girls get to go to college. The rest of us fall into the fireworks trade,” she explains. Both her parents still labour in the factory but are happy that at least Vijayalakshmi could move to Chennai and open up a world of possibilities for herself.
The experiences of C. Mohanapriya, 18, another beneficiary of Udavum Ullangal’s interventions, are similar. Coming from a small village in the Virudhunagar district, where “some girls don’t even get to go to school” she is happy to have had the opportunity to migrate and study in a big city. Mohanapriya has completed her nurse’s training and plans to stay on and get a good job. “In Virudhunagar, I can hope to earn a salary of only Rs 3,000 or Rs 4,000 (US$1=Rs 55),” she reveals. This is half of what she expects to make in Chennai. Even after accounting for expenses like food and hostel accommodation she thinks she will be able to save enough to send some money home. Her other mission in life right now is to help girls like her – “especially my friends” – to accomplish what she has been able to do.
Curiously, nursing seems to be the preferred career option for these rural girls. Vijaya, 20, who comes from Udankudi village, about 70 kilometres away from the town of Tuticorin, shares her story. Her father passed away some years earlier and her mother is a homemaker. “Girls in our village end up in the salt and chemical factories near our village, working in extremely difficult conditions,” she says. Vijaya, too, feels fortunate to have escaped that fate and doesn’t plan to return there in a hurry. “There is no hospital in the vicinity so how would I be able to make a living there?” she asks.
Once upon a time migration out of the villages of southern Tamil Nadu had meant one of two things: The movement of men out of the village in search of work, or the movement of women because of marriage. But this is changing. Today, the migration of young women in search of education or work is not uncommon. Observes Sankar Mahadevan, founder of Udavum Ullangal, which has helped hundreds of girls to move to Chennai for a better education, “By arming rural girls with independence and financial strength, a desirable twist to the gender tale is being brought about,” he says.
But while a megacity like Chennai has been a beacon of hope for scores of young women, no move of such decisive proportions comes without its share of tough times. For those who had never left their village and who are only just emerging out of their teens, the transition to a life among strangers has meant anything from dealing with city slickers to overcoming loneliness and even something as basic as decoding the local dialect, which is different from the familiar patios of home.
C. Vijayalakshme, principal of M.A. Chidambaram College of Nursing, has seen many young women grapple with the demands of city life. “The girls migrating from rural areas struggle a lot at first but they eventually manage to find their space. What they need is counselling and guidance, especially during their first three to six months in the city,” she explains.
Young Vijaya, for instance, had difficulty in communicating with people. “Moving to Chennai was tough – unknown faces everywhere and then having to pick up ‘Madras Tamil’, which is totally different from my Tuticorin Tamil dialect – took a lot of adjustment,” she reminisces.
Mohanapriya found her studies in English very difficult to handle, since her school education was in the Tamil medium. Fortunately for her she found that her friends and classmates were always willing to clear her doubts.
Physical safety was the other area of concern. Becoming familiar with city routes, negotiating market places, knowing how to deal with sexual harassment and even living alone in a hostel were big hurdles. Of course, things are easier if hostel accommodation is provided and the girls at the M.A. Chidambaram College have been lucky in this respect. Because it is rare to have parents and other relatives drop by, given the prohibitive costs of travel, these young women have discovered the importance of forging strong personal bonds with classmates and colleagues. Says Vijaya, “For me, personally, staying in a college hostel has been a god-send. Otherwise living alone in a big city like this would have been very risky.”
In his research paper, ‘Female Migration To Mega Cities of India’, Dr K.C. Das Arunananda Murmu, has argued that this trend of women migrating from villages to towns and cities is only going to accelerate, not just in Tamil Nadu but in the country as a whole. He says, “Most female migrants now moving to cities are either illiterate or semi-literate. There is, therefore, a need for policy making that enhances the security, empowerment and opportunities for such women in terms of education and employment.”
Since many of these young migrants do not have the advantage of accessing good hostels and are often forced to settle for insecure living and working conditions, there’s a critical need for initiatives like the Safe Migration Project started by the Kolkata-based Jabala Action Research Organisation (JARO). In association with gram panchayats, JARO keeps track of those women and girls who have migrated and provides them with a safety net at the destination point. They also have a rehabilitation strategy in place for those who get drawn into sex trafficking.
Meanwhile, from Sivakasi Sandana Mary, 19, has just moved to Chennai to join Vijaya, Mohanapriya and others. She had been working at a fireworks factory for a whole year after having successfully completed Class XII, because her family could not afford to send her to college. “Nobody should be forced to give up studies, like I had to. Now I am planning to do a diploma course. One day I hope to have a post-graduate degree in nursing,” says this focused young girl.
There are many like Mary who are dreaming big and hoping to escape the grinding poverty that marks their lives. The inmates of hostel attached to the M.A. Chidambaram College are more than willing to take them under their wing. Having made the transition themselves, they realise how important education and employment is for future well-being.
There is a wealth of understanding in the words of Vijaya’s new friend, A. Indra, when she says, “We want to tell young women back home that there’s no need to be afraid of the big city. All of us women should develop the capacity to stand on our own feet.”