Mahalir Sakthi: This NGO provides education & dignity to stigmatized children and women from Madurai’s slums

Mahalir Sakthi: This NGO provides education & dignity to stigmatized children & women from Madurai’s slums

Mahalir Sakthi runs 15 study centres in 15 slum areas in the South of Madurai and has so far supported around 12,000 children and women.

Mahalir Sakthi: This NGO provides education & dignity to stigmatized children & women from Madurai’s slums 30stades

Reshma Kabir from Madurai grew up in a poor and orthodox family. Her family was opposed to her higher education or getting a job. However, Reshma completed her Master’s in Food Technology and now works in a private hospital.

She also participated as an independent candidate in the Madurai Municipal Corporation elections in March 2022 and came in second.

Reshma says all this would not have been possible without help from Mahalir Sakthi, an NGO that works to empower underprivileged Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim women and children from Madurai’s slums.

Reshma says her mother was the first to associate with Mahalir Sakthi. “She used to work before marriage and used to write reports for the press. But, after marriage, she was restricted from working. She, however, got an opportunity from the Mahalir Sakthi Press for writing reports,” she says.

Reshma Kabir completed her Master’s in Food Technology with support from Mahalir Sakthi and now works in a private hospital. Pic: Mahalir Sakthi 30stades
Reshma Kabir completed her Master’s in Food Technology with support from Mahalir Sakthi and now works in a private hospital. Pic: Mahalir Sakthi

Reshma started going to the Mahalir Sakthi centre near her home when she was in class eight. “I thought instead of sitting alone and studying after school, I could come here and study.”

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The NGO helped with her studies and also identified and honed other talents. “They helped me with public speaking skills. Today what I am is thanks to Mahalir Sakthi,” says Reshma.

For 18 years, since 2005, Mahalir Sakthi, a Madurai-based NGO founded by C Gunaseeli, has been empowering marginalised women and children from the economically underprivileged Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim backgrounds in Madurai slums.

Mahalir Sakthi runs 15 study centres in 15 slum areas in the South of Madurai and has so far supported around 12,000 children and women.

Over the years, the NGO has transformed the lives of not just women and children but also their families, impacting generations and providing them with a life of dignity.

It supports children in their education and ensures they don’t drop out of school by conducting after-school tuition classes for them. Additionally, it conducts tailoring and typing lessons for women to enable them to earn additional income.

Also Read: Abha Kunj: Zero-cost education gives a better future to Indore’s underprivileged kids

Life experiences

Gunaseeli says her life experience is the main source of inspiration behind setting up the NGO and working towards the empowerment of the vulnerable in Madurai slums. 

“I am the fourth of 10 children. Our life was very tough. In my childhood days, getting to eat even one square meal was hard. I know what hunger is,” she recounts.

“I also struggled to get educated. I had to take a one-year break after school. With great difficulty, I joined college and continued my studies with the help of many people. So, I know the thirst for education,” she adds.

C Gunaseeli took VRS from the Central Excise and Customs Department in 1998. She founded Mahalir Sakthi in 2005 to support vulnerable children & women in the slums of Madurai. Pic: Mahalir Sakthi  30stades
C Gunaseeli took VRS from the Central Excise and Customs Department in 1998. She founded Mahalir Sakthi in 2005 to support vulnerable children & women in the slums of Madurai. Pic: Mahalir Sakthi

Gunaseeli says during holidays, she and her sisters made small garlands of flowers to earn some additional money to help their parents. “By doing this work, I learnt to earn while studying to help my family”. 

In the mid-1970s, due to migration and the arrival of large groups of people from rural areas to Madurai, the area where Gunaseeli lived turned into a major slum. “I know every bit of life experience of slum children,” she says.

Also Read: Listening, teaching & inspiring: How Chennai’s TQI is mentoring students in 30 districts

Despite poverty, Gunaseeli was determined to study. She worked and earned money for her education. After her graduation, her father passed away. But a pastor helped her enrol free of cost for a postgraduate diploma in Social work and Community development in Bengaluru.

After that Gunaseeli worked with an NGO. In the meantime, she got a job with the Central Excise and Customs Department and served for nearly 30 years, before taking Voluntary Retirement in 1998.

Apart from Education, Mahalir Sakthi also guides children and women on public speaking, vocational training, and societal issues besides others. Pic: Mahalir Sakthi 30stades
Apart from education, Mahalir Sakthi also guides children and women on public speaking, vocational training, and societal issues. Pic: Mahalir Sakthi

Using education to empower

Even while she was in the government service, Gunaseeli continued doing social work. The focus of her work was on women and children from the most marginalized sections of society.

Also Read: To Sir, with Love: Bhopal journalist empowers underprivileged girls through education

“Education should be provided to children from the families of scavengers, gutter cleaners, toilet cleaners, cobblers and other stigmatized backgrounds. Because of their parents’ work, these children face socio-economic discrimination and their life becomes miserable,” she says.

She says women and children from such backgrounds face many hardships including poverty, dropping out of school, drug addiction, alcoholism, debt bondage, torture of women and young girls, sexual abuse and health hazards.

“I strongly felt that education is the only weapon that could bring a change in their life… ensure they can get away from the hardships and lead a decent and dignified life. Education has changed my life and my life experience is an example.”

That motivated Gunaseeli to launch Mahalir Sakthi, which means women power, with the help of a few friends.

Also Read: Sakhi for Girls’ Education: 100% pass, zero dropouts among girls in Mumbai slums

The NGO provides coaching to students, vocational training to women and youth works towards their personality development, helps access government schemes and creates health awareness.

Its model of education is group study or coaching. “One student, mostly at the college level, leads a small team of High School students. A team consists of five students. The coach is called a facilitator and others are called learners. Classes are held daily from 5.30 pm to 8.00 pm. Fifteen facilitators teach 75-100 learners.

After-school classes are held from 5.30pm to 8pm free of cost. Pic: Mahalir Sakthi 30stades
After-school classes are held at 15 centres from 5.30pm to 8pm free of cost. Pic: Mahalir Sakthi

“Teach each other and learn from each other” is the motto of this method. In this way, they study their syllabus daily and clarify doubts.”

The learners don’t need to pay as they have little capacity for payment. The facilitators are paid Rs1000 every month from donations that Mahalir Sakthi receives and they use it to meet their educational expenses.

The challenges to education

Gunaseeli says the children living in slums face social and economic adversity and their family life is stressful.

“Almost all the fathers are alcoholics. The daily fight between parents leads to mental stress and disturbs their studies. The fathers squander money on alcohol instead of spending on kids’ education.

Also Read: Bharti Foundation provides zero-cost education to over 40,000 underprivileged kids

Mobile phones too are a trap. Youth get addicted to unhealthy content on social media sites and get into juvenile love affairs and sexual abuse. Caste discrimination also leads to low self-esteem among children.

Since the children come from very poor backgrounds, they face difficulty in paying school fees and buying uniforms, books and stationery. As they perform poorly in school, they don’t get jobs nor are they able to pursue job-oriented/professional courses in higher education.

“Our centres and programmes are a way for them to concentrate on their studies and develop job-oriented skills besides becoming aware of the society’s socio-economic situation. They are motivated to take up education seriously to lead a dignified and decent life. We help build their confidence to enable them to get away from these evil conditions,” she says.

Also Read: Listening, teaching & inspiring: How Chennai’s TQI is mentoring students in 30 districts

Mahalir Sakthi centres and programmes are a way for children to concentrate on their studies and develop job-oriented skills. Pic: Mahalir Sakthi 30stades
Mahalir Sakthi centres and programmes are a way for children to concentrate on their studies and develop job-oriented skills. Pic: Mahalir Sakthi

About their source of funding, Gunaseeli says: “Mahalir Sakthi gets the support of government bodies and donations from individuals and a few NGOs. Local fund-raising efforts including preparation of food items like pickles, nutritious flours and making fancy ornaments, bags etc. also generate some funds.”

About her plans, Gunaseeli says: “Since education is the only source to empower underprivileged children, the services of Mahalir Sakthi to the poor and neglected will continue.”

She says more programmes on enhancing moral values and awareness building are in the pipeline to save children from social evils and especially girls from sexual abuse.

(Sravasti Datta is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist, who writes art, culture and human interest stories)

Also Read: Coimbatore’s Kalvi Thunai: How a retired couple’s zero-fee education centre is giving a bright future to thousands of underprivileged children 

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