This story first appeared in The Journey Vol. I, 2021.
At times she wanted to run away from it all. After her mother died from severe dehydration, Manisha and her two siblings were left to live with their aunt and uncle. Her father married again and left the children behind. The three children were cared for as best their aunt and uncle could, but they also fended for themselves, trying their best to care for each other. Education was not a priority, as Manisha was needed to take care of the household chores. She was 10 years old.
Women are the majority of the global population, yet there is no place in the world where girls and women experience total equity and equality. Investing in a girl means investing in her family, her community, and the world.
A Ray of Light
One ray of light is Navjyoti School in Shahpur, Bihar. A school and residence for students, the center serves over 100 girls every year.
In 2004, Marina Thazhathuveettil, SCN, met Manisha. She saw her precarious situation and home life in the remote village where the education of girls was thought to be a waste of resources. She also saw how Manisha was taking an interest in other children’s studies. “She used to stand and stare at the children coming to the school. When asked whether she would be interested in studying, she showed great eagerness,” says Sister Marina.
From her cousins, Manisha would try to learn as much as she could. “Both of them were younger to me. It was a very painful period for me because they were going to school, and I could not,” Manisha remembers.
Sister Marina worked to bring Manisha to Navjyoti School to give her a fresh start in life and break free from the cycle of poverty she faced. At Navjyoti, Manisha had the chance to receive a quality education in a safe environment where she could grow and develop to achieve her God-given talents and capabilities.
Through hard work, she caught up to the conventional grade level for her age, passing multiple classes in the first years. “I excelled in my studies, and in the first exam, I stood first in the class,” says Manisha.
At Navjyoti, Manisha received more than just an education. She received love and support from all around. “One of the Sisters I always remember with gratitude and love is Sister Anjana Kunnath, who is very loving and caring. I saw motherly love in her. She taught me many things in my life,” says Manisha. “She taught me to become strong.”
Sister Anjana recalls, “She was struggling to cope with her childhood experience and felt rejection and hopelessness, but I found her to be talented and capable. She was of great help to me in my health ministry.”
After discerning for a few years of joining the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth as a professed Sister, Manisha decided her vocation in life was to be a lay teacher in the Montessori method’s tradition. Today she is a teacher at Holy Cross School in Darbhanga. She says, “I am earning some money for me and for my dear ones, those who looked after me when I was a child.”
We All Rise
Sisters in the United States have become involved in the lives of girls at Navjyoti as well. Inspired by the international campaign called Girl Up, a faith group of Sisters and others began sponsoring girls at the Shahpur Center.
Girl Up is a movement to advance girls’ skills, rights, and opportunities to be leaders. The movement is a campaign of the United Nations dedicated to securing equal opportunities for underprivileged adolescent girls in developing countries.
Clare McNeil, SCN, of the faith group, speaks of Girl Up and her inspiration to get involved, “Many of our Sisters in India have these same goals as Girl Up as they work daily with young girls. I relayed my reading of the article about the UN campaign to our Quincy, Massachusetts, faith group at the time and suggested we call ourselves the Girl Up Faith Group and support the education of a couple of young girls in India. Everyone in the group was excited about the endeavor and discussed supporting a poorer mission in Shahpur, India. Besides supporting the girls, we agreed to pray for and communicate with the Sisters living in Shahpur, learn the names of the girls and communicate by letter with them, if possible.”
Family members and friends joined the Sisters in sponsoring the students and have been faithful sponsors for 11 years. Over the years, they have received letters and photos from the girls at Shahpur. The first two girls they sponsored, Malti and Neelam, have finished their basic education and learned skills that contribute to the support of their families. Two years ago, the group began sponsoring two new girls, Rupa and Veronica. “We believe that over the years, our endeavor has been as life-giving to us as it has been to the girls we have had the opportunity to help educate,” says Sister Clare.
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth have a long history of empowering women. They are committed as much as ever to work for women’s equality in the world.
When Sister Marina met Manisha as a young girl, she saw potential in her. “Manisha is intelligent and a hard-working young woman. Her deep faith has led her through the many ups and downs of her life,” says Sister Marina.
In recalling their time together at Navjyoti, Sister Anjana says, “I would listen to her and encourage her. At the same time, I challenged her too. I am happy and proud that today she is able to take care of herself.”
Reflecting on her upbringing, Manisha shares the following, “Once, someone asked me why I want to live in this world since I do not have my own mother and my father does not care for me. If that person was in my place, they would have died. My answer to her was, ‘I do not live for myself but for my dear and near ones.’”
That selflessness is the reflection of determination and potential seen within a young girl. A motto of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth is “The love of Christ impels us.” It is out of that profound love that the Sisters are impelled to reach out to those in need, including the most marginalized among us.
Manisha’s path in life was nurtured by the Sisters who saw the opportunity to help her find meaning and fulfillment in life. She is just one of the many lives that the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth have transformed. It is one more way the Sisters continue to help girls rise.