When you ask most children who their heroes are, they might come up with names of athletes, actors, or even historical figures. Usually it’s someone well-known and well-respected. And sometimes, they surprise us and mention people they know, who have had a true impact on their lives. These are the everyday heroes. People who aren’t celebrities. People who don’t seek recognition for the things they do, but do them because they feel right. I met one of these everyday heroes today. And he made me cry.
I don’t know much about Rajender. In fact, we didn’t even get very much time to spend together with him. But today, he became my hero.
We were actually talking with two girls from Haryana who had left school with their families of migrant labourers to pick cotton in Darbhanga, a few provinces away. They shared inspiring stories of how they fell behind after stopping their studies for a few years, but were encouraged and supported by a local children’s group to re-enroll and start studying again, despite the major setback of falling behind their peers. When we asked them who their role models were, I smiled when they mentioned an older girl from the village who had left to obtain her Masters of Science in Chemistry at a technical science university.
They went on to tell us that this older girl’s father was also a role model for them. Not only did he encourage his own daughter to pursue her education, he also spent much of his time motivating other girls in the village to press on with their studies.
After speaking more with the girls, someone stepped over and introduced us to Rajender, the girls’ role model. It was a suprise introduction and I don’t think he expected to be speaking with us. But after hearing about him, we were curious and honoured to meet this everyday hero.
He sat down shyly on a plastic outdoor chair and spoke softly and slowly about his own daughter and how the female principal at the local school enlisted him to encourage other girls at her school to study hard and pursue their dreams.
In a culture where girls are not valued, where child labour is not always questioned, where educational opportunities are usually kept for boys over girls, Rajender made the unpopular choice to go against the societal tide.
“Men in the village have questioned me and asked why I’m spending money to send my girl to university and not my boy,” he told us. “I will not discriminate. Why not put effort into my daughter’s education? If my son will want to study at university some day, he will also have the chance. But my daughter wants to make something of herself, so I must do all I can to support her.”
Not only does Rajender motivate his daughter and the girls in his village to study and pursue their dreams, he also supports them during parental interventions. As we later discovered, he was instrumental in convincing the parents of the two girls (and many others) that their education was worth more than the extra family income they would gain by having them work in the cotton fields.
What’s next for him? “For me, it’s enough to continue working to stop child labour and get kids back in school, to save girls in my village from child marriages and to make sure that girls are given the same opportunities as boys.”
When asked what he dreams of for his daughter, Rajender continues in his soft-spoken unassuming voice, “The dream is hers. I’m just supporting her.”