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     Volume 4 Issue 54 | July 15, 2005 |

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Taking that Extra Effort to Help Others

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Confronted with the shocking deprivation of people who are denied the most basic human needs, it is natural for those who are more privileged to feel guilty. But not many of us go beyond feeling that twinge of guilt and moving on with our mundane lives. It takes a lot of generosity and sincerity to actually do something about the stark poverty around us. The Soroptimist International (SI) is a worldwide service organisation for women in management and professions with more than 3,000 clubs in over 120 countries. These women devote their time and resources to execute projects that directly have a positive impact on the lives of the underprivileged, uneducated and vulnerable. They are dedicated professional women reaching out to other women in many ways, by helping them (and their families) during disasters or wars, working with relevant organisations to improve their health and that of their families, providing access to education for their children. Improving the status of women all over the globe, promoting high ethical standards and human rights for all are some of SI's ideals. The Soroptimists International Club of Dhaka has several projects including a childhood tuberculosis fallow up programme at the Shishu Hospital. One endeavour that merits special attention is it's Children's Literacy Centre that has been teaching poor kids at the primary level for as long as over two decades.

At the learning centre waiting mothers also get a few free lessons on health and hygiene

The learning centre at Nayatola consists of two small rooms that the Shah Noori School authorities have generously given permission to use when its own classes are over. At the centre, 60 children from age eight to twelve years, take lessons equivalent to pre-school to class 2. The curriculum corresponds to the national Education Board's but the kids get to know about a whole lot of other things besides what the books have to offer. They are taught basic hygiene, tips on healthy living and so on. The centre has two teachers and members of executive committee of SI Club Dhaka, pay regular visits to monitor the activities and also to get to interact with the children and their mothers.

Ten-year-old Imran Khan, can't stop raising his hands at the questions posed by a visiting young Soroptomist member who asks about basic hygiene. Bright-eyed and eager, Imran is in class two, loves cricket and studying and dreams of being an ace cricket player for the Bangladesh National Team someday. "My favourite player is Ashraful," he says without hesitation. Imran lives with his father in Dhaka while his mother stays in the village taking care of his younger brothers.

Shamim, an 11-year-old, the son of a rickshawpuller, is less certain about what he wants to be when he grows up and has to think a few minutes before saying the conventional 'doctor'. But he is very sure that he liked coming to the centre because he gets to learn new things and make friends. Like most boys his age, he and his fellow back benchers, enjoy being a little mischievous to keep the atmosphere light-hearted.

A Shandhani volunteer takes blood samples to determine the children's blood types.

Most of the students at the centre are children of domestic workers, garment factory workers and rickshawpullers who cannot afford to pay school fees and who live in the Nayatola area. The centre gives their children the chance to at least be educated at the primary level and the opportunity to dream of continuing their education if they do well. One of the centre's students, Yasmeen, for example, went on to study at the Shah Noori School because her results were good. She is now in class six.

Certainly the parents are very grateful. Usually when a class is in progress the next room is empty which allows the mothers of many of the children to wait, interact among themselves, with the teacher and occasionally, club officials. The day SWM went to visit some of the club's executive committee members and general members were present which clearly caused a lot of excitement among the children and mothers. The president of the club, Dr. Shamim Matin Chowdhury, a psychiatrist, was telling the mothers about water-borne diseases and the importance of drinking clean water. Meanwhile, other members were distributing biscuits or talking to the children in the next class where a team of Shandhani volunteers were taking blood samples of the kids to determine their blood types.

Morzina Begum's daughter is in class 1 at the learning Centre. She works as a domestic maid from 8am to 1pm so she can stay at the centre while her child is in school from 4 to 6 pm. Two of her older children went to the same centre studying till class 2 and then continuing with their studies. Her daughter is now in class 9 and son in class 5 at another school. 'I'm quite happy with the centre, I can see that they are learning things," she says. Salma Begum's daughter is in class 2 at the centre. Salma learnt about the centre through her brother whose two children had gone there and completed class 2. "My brother's kids have learnt a lot," says Salma, "they can do math and can keep accounts."

There is no question about the dedication of the two teachers who act as mentors to the kids. Shahana Khatun has been teaching kids at the Learning Centre since 1984 and cannot imagine doing anything else. Mahbuba Arzoo, a younger teacher started working for the centre in 1992. A mother of four girls, Mahbuba enjoys teaching children. She admits that among her students, girls tend to do better because they are more serious about studying.

The word Soroptimist originates from two Latin words meaning 'best for women'. The members of Soroptomists International Club Dhaka, are all busy, professional women who make time to run this centre out of an urge to give back something to the society. It is the desire to make some difference in the lives of those who face the daunting challenge of being a poor woman or child. Efforts such as these may be tiny ripples in an ocean of impossible odds but if there are enough people to make them, the results will surely have a meaningful impact in reducing the misery of being poor.

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