Neerja Bhanot Awardee Sifiya Haneef Opens About Struggles As A Teen Widow
- IWB Post
- October 30, 2019
One might think that it is usually a life full of struggle that can inspire an individual to embark on a journey of social service. However, IWB thinks, more than anything, it’s also the humanity, compassion, and one’s capability to share with others that can truly make them a sincere social worker. Because, in the end, it’s only the heart that is important.
Sifiya Haneef’s story is one such tale you must pay attention to for it teaches us the power to influence and bring about positive change under harsh circumstances. A native of Kerala, this young woman was recently conferred the Neerja Bhanot Award-2018 for her extraordinary work towards uplifting the rejected widows and helping more than 300 families receive basic facilities. All this, while she herself struggled as a teen widow taking care of two kids without any financial support.
Read the excerpts from our telephone conversation with Sifiya Haneef, a 30-year-old woman who runs an NGO named Chithal, a Malayali word that translates to ‘Termite’ in English.
Hello, Sifiya. Your name is beautiful but can you tell us the secret behind the word Chithal?
It intrigues everyone, doesn’t it? Chithal means termite, an insect that eats wood and other unwanted rotten items around us. With this non-profit organization, my mission is to erase the unwanted misery from people’s lives, especially prevailing in the rural areas and underprivileged section of Indian society.
Interesting! Now let’s begin your story with some childhood memories, shall we?
Sure. I was born in the outskirts of Kerala where I lived a beautiful and peaceful childhood. We had a small house in which I stayed with my mother and sister. My father used to work in Saudi Arabia and would visit us once a month – my favourite time when all of us gathered to share good food and gifts with one another.
Did you get the opportunity to attend school?
Yes! Till grade 10, I studied with my sister after which both of us got married. Until a few years ago, the girls in my village were forced into marriage soon after they hit puberty, a ritual that our forefathers had been practicing for hundreds of years. Sadly, a majority of people belonging to the Muslim community in South India still don’t believe in girl education.
How was your married life like?
My husband was from Bangalore and that meant I’d to leave my happy village life behind and get ready to shift to a big city. Before coming to Bangalore, I had no clue that women, too, could have respectable jobs, earn money, and run households. Other than that, I think my circumstances matured me into a woman before the right time.
What did that young girl in you learn during that phase?
I was very small to understand anything, to be honest. For example, nobody educated me about sexual intercourse that turned every physical encounter after marriage into trauma for me. Meanwhile, taking care of the house, managing the chores, and handling two pregnancies kept my plate full for the next couple of years.
What, according to you, can be called the U-turn of your life?
My husband was 14 years elder to me. He was an alcoholic and sadly, died after five years of our marriage. My father gave us enough dowry to survive for quite a while but I knew that it wasn’t going to solve my problem in the long term, especially when I had to raise two sons all by myself. After all, I was just a confused teenager at that time.
I felt helpless, then someone in the neighborhood guided me to take up the job of a customer-care executive in a nearby company, a job for which my limited school education proved to be sufficient. I started earning Rs. 5,000 a month. It was a ray of hope for the three of us.
Was language not a barrier at work?
Not, really. Interestingly, my husband and I didn’t speak the same language and English was the only way we could communicate in for five long years. In this way, I got a chance to polish myself for the future, unknowingly.
Who took care of your kids while you had been working?
I sent my elder son, who was 3.5 years old at that time, to my parents’ place and shifted to an old lady’s house in Bangalore along with my 8-month-old younger son. She was extremely kind to us and took care of our food as I assisted her in daily chores. She even agreed to take the responsibility of my baby while I worked a 10-hour job for the months that followed.
I assume that meeting her was a miracle, considering I didn’t know anybody in the city and lost every ounce of hope after untimely death of my husband. With her support and my will-power, I later joined a hospital as a receptionist and started earning Rs. 8,500/month.
When exactly did you begin working for the widows?
Though the desire to work for the betterment of fellow widows was always in my mind, personal financial crunches limited me. However, once I started receiving a regular salary, I pledged to save as little as Rs. 500-1000 for distressed women around me.
I began with identifying such women in the vicinity of my work and home. Setting myself as an example, I made them understand the importance of education to eventually gain financial independence. So far, I’ve got hundreds of widows enrolled in schools and grab decent jobs to make the ends meet in their families. Along with this, I also help them with the pension plan. I think being active and having a presence of mind is what has helped me at the beginning of this journey.
You started with five families initially that slowly grew to more than 300. What a tremendous victory this is! How do you feel?
Thank you so much. I feel empowered with their progress. Let me mention how the resolve of these women has encouraged me to pursue higher studies. A few years ago, I grabbed my B-Ed degree and recently, a Post-graduation degree in Social Service. I’m now preparing for a PhD.
Excellent! What other social issues do worry you?
I’m working towards a better hygiene system in the rural parts of South India. Apart from providing homes, distributing medicine, ‘Chithal’ is also constructing toilets for the villagers who’d been going to open spaces to release themselves.
How do you manage the funds?
I ask for help with an open and sincere heart. This is where the page ‘Chithal’ comes to rescue. I started it to post the problems of people in need and invite those privileged to offer help in whatever way possible. Fortunately, we’ve been able to build trust by keeping things transparent. I’m simply grateful for the continuous support we get from across India.
We congratulate you on receiving the reputable award by the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust this September. Do you have any unfulfilled dream that you’re working on currently?
I don’t have any unfulfilled dream now. I’m indeed working on all of them at the moment.
(picture source: Chithal)