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A pair of glossy braids snake around Phirdous’ shoulders as she speaks. Each black plait is capped with small fabric scraps. The tiny bows sway with each gesture. She is the perfect image of girlhood: bright eyes, happy smile and excited stories. Hard to believe, were it not for the lessons learned from CI, she would have become a child bride.
Phirdous’ story starts like so many others: in poverty. After financial struggles, her parents, Mohammad and Ruksana, left to find work outside of Kolkata, India. Phirdous was left with her grandmother, Rabia, and her aunt, Nasima.
The family lives in a “vertical slum” — an open-air tenement with dozens of tiny oneroom homes. Vegetation sprouts directly from the building’s crumbling walls. Wires web throughout the structure.
Women gather, kneeling in the courtyard, to wash clothes and dishes. Tiny feet splash in the water as children scamper around female relatives hard at work. It’s a community filled with traditional expectations.
Not so traditional, however, was Phirdous’ interest in CI’s Youth Health Corps (YHC).
A peer-based health program, YHC teaches youth about safe lifestyle choices and reproductive health.
Initially, her family frowned on the training. “[Girls] don’t get permission to go out like that,” Phirdous explains. “You are not allowed out, even to relatives’ [homes].”
Sponsored since age 9, Phirdous was determined to participate. She recruited CI staff to intervene and explain that she’d be safe and that the information she would learn was age-appropriate. “I had to really, really convince them,” she explains. A wry smile flickers across Phirdous’ face as she plays with her braids, “But, finally, my aunt relented.”
As she busied herself with schoolbooks, friends and the YHC, Phirdous’ parents were quietly working on another project: Securing her marriage. She was only 15 at the time.
Little did they know that Phirdous had other plans.
Phirdous doesn’t reveal much when she talks about the proposed marriage except that she fought back. She explained to her family, “At 15, a woman’s body is not ready to have kids; 18 is better.”
The young woman keeps calm in the retelling, but her words betray her composure, “I told them, ‘You know! How can you even say such things … when you know these are the consequences?’”
There’s no question that Phirdous feared for her life. Luckily, though, Phirdous’ arguments convinced the family to cancel the marriage.
Although once hesitant to let her join YHC, family members now affectionately call Phirdous “the doctor in the house.” Thanks to additional training through CI, Phirdous is knowledgeable about health issues and is able to support her community through first-aid.
"A major aspect of the entire CI process has been making me self-reliant," she says. "With my independence, I hope to be financially strong and on my own feet — away from poverty. This will help me be more confident and ensure that I walk the paths I have planned for myself and my family.”
Earlier this year, Phirdous passed her board exams and was promoted to the final years of high school. She’ll spend these years preparing for college, where she wants to study education. Her family couldn’t be more proud.
“They are very supportive of me completing my education and becoming financially independent in life,” she says. “They want me to be an empowered woman.”
Phirdous and her family exemplify how sponsorship transforms the lives of all it touches.
Photos and reporting assistance by Shane Alliew, David Nebel and Nivedita Moitra.