28th February 2017
The annual British Asian Trust Royal Dinner is always one of my favourite nights of the year. I’ve been an Ambassador for almost 5 years now and it’s always a time to recognise, reflect upon and celebrate what the Trust has achieved over the past year, as well as help raise more money to continue their life-changing work in South Asia.
This year’s dinner was extra special for me because I was able to spend some quality time with two amazing young women - Kalsoom and Navanitha. Like many other females in South Asia, they were both told that being a girl meant limits, that their gender would mean they couldn’t and wouldn’t achieve as much as the boys around them. Kalsoom and Navanitha have both challenged those negative beliefs in the best way possible – by proving them wrong. Here are their stories…
Thirty-year-old Kalsoom grew up as one of eight children in Sialkot, in the Punjab province of Pakistan. She always knew that the only way out of poverty was to go to school and was determined to get an education. She briefly became a teacher, but soon found herself in an abusive marriage. After giving birth to a disabled son, who was rejected by her husband and his family, Kulsoom had to face the social stigma of divorce and returned home to her parents.
Kulsoom’s life changed after enrolling on a training programme with the British Asian Trust’s partner Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, which aims to enable women in low-income communities across Pakistan to successfully pursue decent livelihoods. Spotting an opportunity in her community, Kalsoom completed a stitching course and now runs her own business – a training centre which teaches sewing techniques to 20 girls at a time. Her stitching group felt like a sisterhood and that support helped her gain some confidence. She earns enough money now to take care of her whole family and knowing she doesn’t have to depend on anyone else has empowered Kalsoom.
Fifteen-year-old Navanitha from Bangalore in South India turned to sport to change her life. India has the highest number of child brides in the world - 47% of girls are married before their 18th birthday because they are viewed as an economic burden on their own families. Sadly, Navanitha lost her father at the tender age of 8, but despite the financial pressures of growing up in single-parent household, she managed to escape the early marriage path.
Navanitha came across an after-school football club run by the Trust’s partner Dream A Dream at a time when she had lost all her confidence, hated school and didn’t feel positive at all about life. Curiosity made Navanitha sign up and she soon realised she had talent. From feeling invisible, suddenly people were taking notice of Navanitha and believing in her so she could believe in herself. The simple act of playing sport gave Navanitha confidence and her love of school and learning returned. Last year, she even represented India with her goalkeeper skills at the Street Football World Festival in France.
After I first spoke to Kulsoom and Navanitha, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. It was a real honour to privately introduce them to The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall at the 2017 annual Royal BAT dinner and then on stage to all 450 supporters and guests later that evening. Both women have shown us what can be achieved with strength, resilience and determination. Not only did they change their own lives, they are now helping others do the same thing. Women like Kulsoom and Navanitha are the heart of our households, the centre of our communities. Sometimes all they need is the opportunity to thrive.
This blog was originally written for the British Asian Trust website.