How a rag picker became a student

Living on the streets of New Delhi, Sonam didn't have much hope. Then everything changed.

How a rag picker became a student

Living on the streets of New Delhi, Sonam didn't have much hope. Then everything changed.

How a rag picker became a student

Living on the streets of New Delhi, Sonam didn't have much hope. Then everything changed

It's a hot, dusty day in the slum in New Delhi.

Pathways wind between the one-room dilapidated homes, and trash lines the street. Above, the sky is obscured by washing lines, each sagging with brightly-coloured clothes.

This is where 14-year-old Sonam lives with her parents and four siblings. It’s not easy. Here, there’s no running water, and families survive on one, maybe two meagre meals a day.

When she was younger, her father tried to sell chillies and lemon garlands, which people buy to ward off evil spirits. Other than that, their family had almost no income. This is why Sonam must work.

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A childhood without hope

When she was eight, she started begging. Many other children in the slums did the same. The day’s earnings were small coins, but she knew they had the power to feed her family.

Once she got older, Sonam became a rag picker. Her job was to pick through piles of fetid garbage looking for scraps of plastic or metal. These she’d collect in a sack to sell at a price.

It was dangerous work. Sonam’s health was always as she combed through the stinking waste and rubbish. She was constantly hungry, and she was constantly vulnerable to abuse and harassment as she roamed the streets on her own. As a girl, she was especially exposed to danger.

But she knew she had no choice, and she worked hard so her family could afford its only meal of the day. 

Sonam dreamed of going to school, but she knew she couldn’t. None of the children in her area could go to school, either. Most of the families do not have documents to prove their age and citizenship, and girls like Sonam were denied access to healthcare and education.

It didn’t stop her hoping for better things, though.

“I wished to go to school,” she said. “But the magnetic stick was my pencil, and the sack my book.”

Today, the harsh reality is that more than 168 million children are involved in child labour. Like Sonam, children in the slum just had to accept it. But for them, life was without hope.

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Change begins

When the World Vision team entered the community, Sonam viewed them with suspicion. But despite her disbelief, things began to change.

One by one, drop-in centres opened in the community, and 300 children began to receive a basic education. Eventually, World Vision opened eight drop-in centres throughout the area, and they became places to educate more than 1,000 children.

Students learned not only their curriculum, but also the benefits of education and the dangers of child labour.

With the benefit of an education, Sonam’s life has been transformed. She finally got a chance to learn like other children, including how to read and write. Her wish for the classroom was finally realised.

For girls like Sonam, going to school gives them the tools to reach their dreams - whether that's further study or a profession. With the support of World Vision programs like child sponsorship, girls around the world are getting the chance to push past the numerous barriers that keep them out of the classroom.

The staff at the centre also gave Sonam a sewing machine and helped to enrol her in a tailoring class. Now, she can earn money with her sewing and help support her family.

But Sonam’s dreams are not limited to tailoring alone. She is continuing her studies, and has ambitions for what the future might hold. Today, she is a passionate advocate for education - and she hopes to help others in a similar way to how World Vision helped her.

"This is my wish,” she says. “I want to do social work, so that I can transform other young lives.”

Now, her dreams are as big as the sky above.