Women With Disabilities Strive Hard to Be Productive Members of Society

The aroma of freshly baked cakes and biscuits wafts through the air as Poppy Borgohain, 26, animatedly describes why her golden-brown biscuits with their crusty tops are delightfully soft and flaky inside when one bites into them. Poppy loves baking.

Baking is a newfound passion in young Poppy’s life, which has witnessed a series of rough patches. Poppy was paralysed on one side of her body when she was only seven. After she failed to clear her Class Ten examinations, she was really unhappy and clueless about her future.

It was at that point that Poppy heard about the one-year vocational training course in catering, housekeeping and food processing being offered at Sishu Sarothi, a premier centre for the rehabilitation and training of youngsters with multiple disabilities in Guwahati. Supported by the Foundation for Social Transformation (FST) and with a faculty drawn from the city’s well-known institutes – the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology & Applied Nutrition (IHM) and the North East Hotel Management Institute (NEHMI), the centre is popular among youth with various disabilities.

Poppy and her ten other classmates – nine of whom are girls – have become familiar with baking. Life is, quite literally, light and sweet, much like the oven fresh goodies they make in class. And for most of them baking is something novel because they had never seen an oven until they stepped into Sishu Sarothi. Now, of course, they can’t imagine their daily routine without it.

Poppy, who moves around with the help of crutches, is enthusiastic about her future. So is her mother, who finds her biscuits tastier than the ones available in the market. Poppy now hopes to find a job at the bakery unit of a big hotel in Guwahati.

Just like Poppy, Silsila Das, 20, a wheel-chair user, who was afflicted with polio in her childhood, enjoys her baking lessons. She quickly rattles off the names of all the goodies she can bake with ease – cakes, pastries, buns, pizzas, breads and biscuits. “I hope to start my own bakery some day,” she smiles.

Rashmi Baruwa, co-ordinator of the project at Sishu Sarothi, understands the aspirations of girls like Poppy and Silsila. She knows that some of these children were unfortunate to have been afflicted by disability because of polio and other conditions, while others were born disabled. She also realises that although they have the same entitlements as their non-disabled peers, very few of them are able to enjoy equal educational and training opportunities. And life for a disabled woman is even more challenging. This is why the work being done at Sishu is so significant.

Says Rashmi, “We aim to empower differently-abled youths to become skilled, self-reliant and productive members of the society. The programme is meant to bridge the educational divide, multiply opportunities and end discrimination.”

In keeping with this endeavour, trainees are taken on a study tour for an on-the-spot demonstration of various sub-sectors of catering technology at IHM. Silsila especially enjoys the practice sessions where she tries out various baked delights like biscuits, breads, cakes and pastries, muffins, buns, pizzas and sandwiches, along with fruit squashes, chutneys, pickles, and so on. “These items produced during the practice sessions are sold to in-house staff and the sale proceeds are utilised for purchasing raw materials and ingredients for the practice sessions. We also take orders for parties and meetings and have been delivering on them successfully,” she says with a sense of pride. Now they are also looking forward to taking orders for Christmas cakes.

Dealing with a group of differently-abled youths has been a challenging exercise for the instructors as well. Says Baruwa, “Our main hurdle is dealing with a group of differently-able youths with restricted mobility and communication abilities, not-so-normal social skills and behaviour, a weak memory and a low functional activity level. Sometimes, we have to repeat the lessons. But these students have picked up remarkably well.”

Jharna Sinha, an instructor of bakery is a satisfied woman today. “I had earlier conducted classes for homemakers, brides-to-be and professionals. But this is a diverse set of students with different sets of disabilities. Some can’t write while some can’t weigh. But they overcome their shortcomings by making a collective effort. I am really happy with their progress,” she says.

A study of the ‘Employment Rights of Disabled rights of Women’, sponsored by the National Commission for Women and conducted by the Delhi-based Society for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies, mentions that according to Census 2001, there are 2.19 crore persons with disabilities in India constituting 2.13 per cent of the total population. This includes persons with visual, hearing, speech, locomotor and mental disabilities. Seventy five per cent of persons with disabilities live in rural areas, 49 per cent of the disabled population is literate and only 34 per cent are employed in some way or another.

According to 2001 Census, there are 93.01 lakh women with disabilities, which constitutes nearly half (42.46 per cent) of the total disabled population. Women with disabilities require protection against exploitation and abuse. Since few opportunities for productive work or gainful employment exist for such women, they are perceived as an even greater burden for their families, than their male counterparts. With their enforced financial dependency, they constitute an extremely vulnerable group. This is why the message sent out by the alumni of Sishu Sarothi is so important.

Meanwhile, the women being trained to bake exotic goodies at Sishu Sarothi can plan for their future – whether it is to set up their own patisserie, mobile eatery or work in a general bakery. With their training they can also hope to provide catering services of snacks/lunches to offices and institutions as well as bake for evening events and functions. Sinha adds, “Some can even opt to make products at home and supply them to the various outlets in hotels and shops. Others can offer baking lessons at home. The opportunities are many and waiting to be tapped.”