What is the challenge?
On Wednesday 4th March 2020, we make our way to the Women’s Development Centre for the first time. Maresce (our founder, who originally visited last year and was inspired to create the project), warns us: “You will probably get pretty emotional today; I know I did. Just try not to let it show too much. We’re here to give these girls hope“.
On the surface, you’d be forgiven for thinking the situation isn’t too bad. After driving up a steep, narrow path we reach quite a modern looking building at the top, where the House Mothers welcome us in and offer us a drink and a comfortable sofa to sit on. But this is the newest building, donated not long ago by another organisation. Once the House Mothers showed us round the rest of the centre, we understood that there was still a lot of work to do to help these girls, and we felt what Maresce had warned us about.
As we leave the comfort of the reception area and head towards the ‘front house’ where the girls and their babies spend their waking hours, we see timid faces peeking through doors and barred windows. There is trepidation, which is understandable; the girls don’t speak English, don’t know who we are, and don’t know what we want to do with them. They’ve been told we’re here to make things better for them, but these children – and they are children – have come from trauma and pain, and trust is not something they can easily give.
There are 25 girls who are either pregnant or with a child living in the centre at the moment. The youngest is 11 years old. 15 of them have babies to look after; the youngest mother is 14.
There’s no plan for schooling, but they are given the opportunity to sew and earn their keep. It’s clear that the sewing machines are the centre’s prized possession; without this income, they would not be able to feed and house the girls or babies. With the shame they would bring to their community if they returned home, they would have nowhere else to go.
Unfortunately there is not much demand for sewing skills once they leave the centre, and while there is a desire to teach them other things there is simply not the resource or know-how to do so. They would like to teach things that don’t need machines, that could be used in any location – like beautician and massage skills. They would love to offer an opportunity for mothers to get an education, while still keeping the babies around, but local schools are very unlikely to accept any girl who has a child, and private schooling is expensive.
There is some semblance of a routine. Skills training and manufacturing takes place from 8:30am until lunch, with 2-3 girls left behind to care for the babies each day. During this time, they are trained in using the weaving and sewing machines and they create sari material and baby clothes to be sold to specific retailers. Ironically, they cannot afford to keep any of these baby clothes for their own. After lunch, the mothers spend time with their children and they are taught some rudimentary baby skills, before the children go down for a nap. The couple who are lucky enough to have a school place return at 3pm, and the day ends at around 4:30pm, when they eat.
These girls are all children – but the majority of them do not get an education, and none of them have the energy, enthusiasm or the means to enjoy any free time they get. They sew, they care for the children, they sit quietly – the days drag on, until they reach 18 and must leave.
The first room we visit, and the room we feel is most important, is the nursery. It’s not a huge room; maybe the size of an average living room back west, and it doesn’t get much light through the barred windows and frosted glass – installed for their protection. Each day, while the girls work next door on their sewing and weaving, their babies are kept here – with girls taking it in turns to look after them. We count 12 infants, sleeping, wriggling, or peeking at us through the flaking bars of their metal cots. Two tired-looking girls, no more than children themselves, watch us enter as they sit on plastic chairs in corners of the room.
Tala* is a visiting student nurse from the Philippines. She has been trying to teach the girls about hygiene for themselves and their babies, and help to look after them during her six-month visit. She tells us, “They can’t afford to buy diapers for the babies, so you can see that some of the babies aren’t wearing one. They got a donation of some disposable ones, but when I arrived I found that they were boiling them in a pot so that they could reuse them. I told them not to do this, but they don’t have anything else to use“. We notice one of the babies without a diapers has soiled her bedding – this will just be rinsed and put back. There is no changing area, and while there is a basic, dirty bathroom, we’re told that the girls are forbidden from using it.
There is no soft play area, nowhere to take the children outside of their peeling metal cots. There is a worry that when the children begin teething, they chew on the bars and could become ill from the paint and dirt. One of the girls has tied a piece of cloth between two as a makeshift hammock, which she uses to rock a fussy one back to sleep.
Almost a third of the room is taken up by desks and computers; what the sign outside calls a ‘Mini IT Center for Basic Education’, donated several years ago from The Rotary Foundation. “They don’t work any more,” explains Tala. “And even if they did, no one here knows how to use them.“
Across the hall we come to the workroom. If it’s not their turn to look after the babies, each girl will spend the majority of their day in here. It’s an even more crowded room; packed tight with 15 sewing machines, boxes, storage cupboards and fabric piled high on every surface for the girls to work and earn their keep. The cupboards that line the walls are all entirely full, so they’ve taken to stacking their materials and work in the out-of-order bathroom, too – another one they cannot use. We’re told there’s more material being delivered soon.
Young girls hunch over sewing machines, poring over the details in the low light – the lucky ones have bagged a metal chair with a tattered cushion to work from, while others make do with a stool or cheap plastic lawn chair. Notices and calendars are tied to the window bars with strips of rag, reminding everyone of the work to be done. The floor has cracked as if hit by an earthquake, and dust and grime collects everywhere: in the walls, the cupboards, the broken tables, and on the machines. One fan turns slowly, only lightly stirring the hot air filling the room.
14 girls are working in here this morning, preparing fabric and baby clothing to sell to local retailers.
At this point we head up to the first floor, and the classroom – a stark contrast to the rooms below. Clearly significantly less-used, the classroom is quiet and empty. At one end, a broken, chipped whiteboard is surrounded by old wooden desks and benches, reminiscent of something from a wartime English schoolroom. Some empty, broken bookcases look naked without any books on them, and a single basketball longs to be fully inflated.
At the other end, we find the room has become a storage area for chairs – many more of the uncomfortable plastic lawn chairs we saw supplementing the workroom and some matching low tables, plus a collection of once brightly-coloured children’s chairs in need of repair. There are three televisions: one of which would have looked old-fashioned even back when I was a child in the 90s, and each with a defect rendering it unusable. The balcony has been blocked from access with these.
Another bathroom, here – tied shut with a rag and out of order.
Across the hall is what the centre calls the library, but which seems to be another storage room. A makeshift divider splits it into two sections, starting with a main area where many grey metal (locked) cupboards house the more expensive sari fabric that’s woven upstairs. In the middle of the floor sit a stack of mattresses; we’re told it’s because of the bedbug infestation in the dorms, though it’s unclear why the girls haven’t yet been given the replacements. The other side of the divider we see the library which does house a few shelves of books – but the main contents of the room are clothes and produce from the centre, as the table is being repurposed as a packing area before they are shipped out.
The side wall is covered in brightly coloured paint handprints. Though once cheerful, they are now eerily reminiscent of a horror movie and a failed escape.
*Some names have been changed to protect the girls who seek shelter in the centre.