CUDDALORE: Twenty-eight-year-old Lakshmi*, carrying her five-year-old son in one arm and clutching an envelope in her hand, patiently waits to see the in-charge of the Service Home (Sevai Illam) in Cuddalore, one of the six such homes in Tamil Nadu.“I wanted to get admitted into the Sevai Illam to continue my education. My husband abandoned me and married another woman while I was pregnant. Now with no money or no place to go, I decided to continue my education and find a job for myself. But, as the school here is shutting down and moving children to government schools, I cannot afford to leave my son behind and go pursue my studies,” she explains.
“Aren’t Service Homes Schools for women like me?” Lakshmi asks.
Indeed, the State government-run SHs were started in 1948 to aid war widows. The objective of the homes was to provide accommodation, food, health services and education to such women. Now, managed by the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare and Nutritious Meal Programme department, with a budget allocation of Rs 612.80 lakh per year, the homes admit widows, destitute, deserted or disabled girls and women from economically weaker sections of society.
They also allow women like Lakshmi to live at homes with their children and provide for their needs as well. While boys are allowed to stay until Class 5, girls and women may stay till they complete Class 12. However, the reason for Lakshmi’s distress is that the Directorate of Social Welfare (DSW) has decided to permanently shut the schools run at the SHs from June 30. The department plans to shift the students studying at those schools to nearby government schools.
For Lakshmi, who has spent months running between the Collectorate and the Cuddalore taluk office to get a letter confirming her status as a single mother, the news comes as a blow. Standing outside the Cuddalore SH, she wonders if she will gain admission, if she will be allowed to keep her son with her, and what will happen to mother and son if the government decides to shut the homes as well.
The government, however, appears to have had loftier goals than previously known for these homes. And deeming these goals unmet, the State thought it best to scale back on the programme. According to the circular sent out by the DSW and accessed by Express, the schools are being closed as “despite running for several decades, the schools of SHs have failed to produce even a single doctor, engineer, researcher or scientist in the entire State.” The circular goes on to say that “no elder women have been benefited by the facility currently, for whom the Home was started.”
Further, “officials both at district and State-levels are held up with other work, making it difficult to conduct inspections. Hence, before 30 June all the students must be enrolled in the nearby government schools, but they can continue staying in the SHs,” the circular says.It goes on to note that of the 479 residents at the schools across the State, only 38 students are orphans, only 164 are supported by a single parent, and only about 58 per cent are economically poor. This, the circular says, has turned the Home into a place for destitute and economically poor children only. Also, the DSW cannot employ teachers for every subject, it says.
Need for extra care
Those who have worked with the children at the SHs fear their needs may not be best served at outside schools. “The children in SHs need extra care and counselling. Many of them cannot even do basic math or read. In such cases, it is difficult for a government school teacher to give attention to these girls and women,” a retired SH teacher explains.
Stakeholders blame the government for failing to reach out to the people and spread awareness about the SHs. “If there aren’t enough widows and single mothers to keep the schools running, it means the department has not spread awareness,” says Ramraj, a single parent, who refused to admit his daughter to the Salem SH after learning that the schools were being shut.
Meanwhile, several teenage girls and married women are approaching the SHs for admission. SHs in Thanjavur, Cuddalore, Tambaram, and Salem have admitted about 25 students for the current financial year. But, the officials don’t seem to know how to help older women like Prema*. She is a 35-year-old mother of a 17-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl. She is currently studying in Class 11. “Last year, I joined the SH in Tambaram, but as the school there was shut I was sent to the Cuddalore SH. But, now I learn they are shutting down all the schools,” she says. “After finishing Class 12 here, I was planning to train as a Village Health Nurse. My family only allowed me to study as I would be safe in the Home. Now, I doubt they will allow me to finish Class 12,” she says.
Older women affected
It is women such as Lakshmi and Prema, for whom the programme was originally intended, who are most affected by the DSWs decision. While the children may manage at government schools, what of the older women, trying to finish the school education and gain skills so they can be financially independent?
“Many destitute girls, widows and single mothers who studied at SH schools are working as Village Health Nurses in many districts. SH schools have made a lot of women financially and emotionally independent. I doubt if we can continue to contribute in the same manner after the schools are shut,” laments the in-charge of one SH.
“Most of the occupants of the SHs desire a decent job. If they are not taught with personal attention, these girls and women will be pushed to work as domestic workers or daily wagers,” the retired SH school teacher says. “In shutting all the schools of SHs across the State, the government is simply depriving helpless women and girls of basic education and employment. What is the guarantee that the SHs will also not be closed down?” she asks.
Officials, however, speak of resources or lack thereof. “The schools were started to aid war widows and single mothers. That situation does not exist anymore. Further, there are not enough teachers for the number of students enrolled. The department cannot employ teachers for all the subjects. Students will have more exposure if they step out. Hence, to judicially use resources, we decided to shift the children to nearby government schools,” says V Amudhavalli, commissioner of the Directorate of Social Welfare.
Asked if the SH might be closed down, Amudhavalli assures they won’t. “The homes will not be closed down. The children can continue to stay in the home while studying in government schools nearby,” she says.
However, asked about what would happen to older women with children, like Prema, if they approached the SHs, Amudhavalli dismisses it as “an imaginary situation”. “Women can still write Class 10 and 12 exams privately and have vocational training outside too. SHs are not the answer to everything. But, if women happen to come they, like others, will have to go to the government schools and leave the children behind in the care of a cook or cleaning lady at the Home,” she says.
Widows’, destitute, deserted and disabled girls, women aged 14-45 years with an annual family income below Rs 72,000 are eligible for admission at the SH
SHs provide free accommodation, food, health and medical facilities
Training in spoken English and computers is also provided
Residents may stay till they complete Class 12. Boys (sons of the women) may only stay up to Class 5
On completion of Class 12, the government provides Rs 50,000 for each resident and Rs 30,000 to pursue diploma and degree courses