Heena and Laxmi have grown up together and proudly proclaim that they are best friends. Heena is very confident in speaking English - her hopes for the future include learning French and Spanish and travelling the world - so she's Laxmi's unofficial translator when western visitors come to their home.
Their home being Udaan, one of the seven Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT) residential care centres. Off a busy thoroughfare, five miles away from the centre of Delhi that most tourists recognise, the home has designated space for 60 of India’s most vulnerable girls. Most of the time there are closer to 90 staying there. Aged between 5 – 17 years, girls are bought here by social services or outreach workers; others by relatives or the police. Reasons are complex but include living on the streets, escaping child marriage, having run away from home, fleeing from sexual abuse or the loss of parents. Some stay for a few days or a few weeks while co-ordinators make contact with their family and arrange for them to be reunited if it’s deemed safe. Sometimes the Child Welfare Commission (CWC) will place them elsewhere. Others, like Heena & Laxmi, thrown together by chance and circumstance, will stay until they are 18. It’s the only place they call home. Providing safety, education, care and a glimpse of stability in their chaotic young lives.
Unable to live with her parents since she was two-years-old, Heena, now aged 14 tells us, "My father was not good. When I was two years old and my little sister was in my mother's stomach, my Dad left my Mum because he wanted boys not girls, so we were alone with my mum. We needed food, we needed everything, but my mum couldn't give us anything. So, she thinks she has to give us to an NGO or orphanage… she put me and my bigger sister into an orphanage. My small sister was born and lived with our Grandma in our village in UP (Uttar Pradesh) and my mum had to go to city to the get work. When I was old enough, I came to Udaan. Before I came to Udaan I couldn't think about my hobbies or my future. Now I want to be a model, but also an actor." SBT enrolled Heena in school and she is also part of the group of young actors who learn drama and dance, performing annual plays.
From 2014 - 2018 India was the world's fastest growing major economy*, but the picture is polarised. Since the start of this century, vast wealth has been generated and swathes of its major cities have become home to world-class business complexes, millionaire's residences and shopping malls to rival those in Dubai. Yet, with the top 10% of the population holding 77% of the total national wealth,^ many ordinary Indians are unable to provide the most basic of food, healthcare and education for their families. Inequality against women and girls is rife, especially in poorer rural communities.
The girls practising their dancing
Living in rural poverty, without a husband, Laxmi's mother was unable to care for her four children. Aged five, Laxmi and her elder sister were taken to another of SBT's homes, Arushi, before being moved together to Udaan where they have lived for ten years. She has been attending school and is in Class 8 but, unlike Heena, prefers kickboxing to acting. SBT arranged kickboxing lessons for Laxmi which she attends monthly, as well as taking part in competitions. She says, 'There are a lot of good people here. I like it best when volunteers come in to do craft and I really love to dance. It isn't hard living here but there should be more kickboxing!' Salaam Balaak Trust know that education is singularly the best chance children have of being able to break the cycle of poverty. All long stay children receive formal education which is supplemented with extra-curricular learning in subjects such as performing arts, computers, photography and sports.
Mornings are the quietest time at Udaan, when most of the children are in school. The calm quickly diminishes once groups of girls are guided safely back from the surrounding government schools and the noisy scrabble to change out of uniform and get to the front of the lunch queue ensues. Heena, Laxmi and Diya unanimously agree their favourite lunch is Rajma Chawal; a spicy curry of kidney beans with rice, best eaten with friends, crossed legged on the floor.
Lunch is served
Diya also lives at Udaan. After her father died, she and her older brother and sister lived with their mum in the state of Bihar. Then, Diya's mother became seriously ill with cancer and she too passed away. Still just a child himself, Diya's older brother saw no choice but to put his sisters in a home. Diya explains, "The first centre we stayed at was nice… but there was no education for us. We were sent to Udaan so we could go to school. I have so many friends here and also my sister who is in class 10. I love going to dance class and I join in with the plays. But I don't want to be a dancer, I want to work with computers."
Udaan provides the lifeline of stability and security to Heena, Laxmi, Diya and the 70, 80 or 90 girls who call it home. We can't pretend that any children's home is an ideal place to be. Their very nature is far from perfect. Udaan itself is overcrowded, bitterly cold in the winter and stifling in the summer, the budget is so tight, the girl's behaviour can sometimes be - quite understandably - difficult. Against this, the all-female staff do more than just work, there's a sense that they genuinely care. They make this the safest place many of the girls have ever lived. And the resilience of children is strong; with security and nurturing they can adapt, grow and look forward more than they look back.
To protect the girls, we've changed their first names, but their stories are as they told them. Friends of Salaam Baalak Trust was set up to enable people outside of India to financially support the seven residential homes and 14 non-residential contact points run by SBT; you can make a donation here. Sources: *International Monetary Fund, 2019 ^Oxfam, 2019