School’s over for the day, but Aparna and Shilpa, both of them students of class nine of Chinnamma Memorial Girls High School and long-time residents of S.M.S.S. Hindu Mahila Mandiram at Poojapura, which runs the school, have a lot of revising to do for an upcoming maths exam. Oblivious to the ruckus, as happy youngsters in this 95-year-old home for indigent girls and women make the most of play time, the duo are bent over their notebooks, working out complex geometry equations, helped by a couple of home tutors.
“We want to be computer engineers and we are determined to work hard for it,” says Aparna, brimming with confidence. Sprightly Aishwarya, meanwhile, a student of class 11 and one of the home’s star pupils, wants to become an architect. She is busy prepping for her role as the compere for an upcoming event at the Mandiram. Like these three precocious youngsters, every one of the 96 girls, ages ranging five to 19, who call the Mahila Mandiram their home, want to make something of themselves. Guiding their dreams to fruition is M. Sreekumari, the organisation’s long-time honorary secretary, and her merry band of dedicated volunteers and staff members.
Mahila Mandiram was established in 1918 and registered as a charitable organisation in 1920 by K. Chinnamma and centres its activities on the ‘care, education, empowerment and rehabilitation’ of orphans and women and children from impoverished backgrounds. “We’ve tried to carry forward the legacy and social commitment of our founder. Our aim is not only to bring the girls up well and get them married off, but to also make each one of them stand on their own two feet, be empowered, self-sufficient and, above all, have self-respect,” says 71-year-old Sreekumari, who has been running the organisation for some 34 years now.
“Social work is in my very genes; I come from a family which has always been into social work. I am in awe of Chinnamma who thought so far ahead for women and children of the land, at a time when they were relegated to being second class citizens. Chinnamma hailed from an ordinary family in Attingal but was determined to get an education. Encouraged by her kunjamma [maternal aunt] who worked at the palace, she was one of the first female students of the Fort High School. She completed graduation after marriage and rose to become an inspector of schools in erstwhile Travancore and became a pioneer in social work. Chinnamma died at 47, 12 years after she established the organisation, the seeds for which must have been sown in her early teens itself,” adds Sreekumari, as she shows us around the well-kept home that includes spacious living quarters and a library, among other facilities.
“We are all one big family here,” she says, responding with a smile or a small wave as the youngsters call out greetings – in near reverence – to their ‘Amma.’
Apart from the home and the high school, Mahila Mandiram runs a Government-aided lower primary school, a working women’s hostel, an old age home for impoverished women at Azhoor, Chirayinkeezh, Panchavadi, ‘a holistic community development project, benefitting both children and the elderly’ at Vellanad, and a vocational training centre, the Mahima complex (currently under renovation).
They started out by giving young women training in handloom weaving and changed to “more feasible trades” as times changed.
Today Mahima complex houses a stitching and embroidery unit, a book binding unit, an offset press, and a computer centre that not only trains young women from the locality but provides employment opportunities too. In fact, for its efforts, the organisation won the national award for child welfare in 2013.
“Apart from fundraising, one challenge is actually finding committed personnel to help run the organisation. Because we can’t afford to pay exorbitant salaries, most of those who come for work here view it as a stop-gap arrangement. This also means that we are not savvy enough to attract the kind of corporate sponsorship that is available nowadays. Then again, the biggest challenge is raising the children – two at home is difficult, imagine a 100!
“Each child is a challenge, more so when the child in question has come to us after suffering emotional/physical trauma. We try to give them as much individual care as possible but it’s not always easy and we’ll never measure up to their mothers, who they would have left behind. The key is to persevere come what may and get them on the path to success,” says Sreekumari.
For a cause
On Saturday, March 21, 5 p.m., the organisation kicks off the first event in its master plan for its centenary celebrations – a fundraising event for Puthen Mandiram, the old age home at Azhoor, established in 2002. “We want to celebrate our centenary by bringing more women and children under our umbrella,” says Radha Lakshmi, president of the organisation. Having started functioning with just four residents, Puthen Mandiram [the land and heritage home was donated by one of the organisation’s member T. Madhavi Amma] now accommodates 15 women. “The present accommodation falls short of the comforts the residents require. By 2020 we want to expand the facility to a two-storey building to accommodate at least 25 elderly women, and make it more age-friendly, besides starting several outreach programmes such as a day care centre, assisted living facilities and an ambulance service,” adds Sreekumari. Contact: 0471 2351243