One evening in 1984, Kamlesh, a new mother, held her four month old daughter, Meenu, in her arms. Sitting in a rural Punjabi village, she admired her baby’s beauty. In that moment, words welled up inside her. “My life is messed up. I don’t want to mess up my girl’s life.”
It was then she resolved that her daughter would go to school.
It was an extraordinary thought for a Punjabi woman who had no education. Her parents, five sisters and two brothers also had no schooling. Her husband, Manohar Lal, was a laborer from Bahrowal who never went to school either. She had come from Guru Nanak Pura, about 20 km away, to wed him in an arranged marriage.
Little did she know the resilience she would have to build to fight for her daughter’s education as the years passed by.
Finding work to make education a reality for her daughter
In the community Meenu grew up in, it was not expected that children would go to school, let alone girls. But in the late 1980s, Kamlesh went looking for work to support her family, and her daughter’s education.
She visited Guru Nanak Mission Hospital in Dhahan-Kaleran, about 3 km away from her home. She sat before its founder, Mr. Budh Singh Dhahan. With no education, and no formal skills, all she had to offer were her hands for labour.
Mr. Dhahan, who died in 2018, was a community leader. His goal was to “uplift the poor and less educated, especially young girls and women,” as he put it.
He told Kamlesh she could perform domestic duties at the hospital. She would clean, cook, run errands and serve tea to guests of her superiors.
At one point, Mr. Dhahan had to teach her how to properly serve tea.
Kamlesh says he taught her to do every task with ‘imandari.’ It’s an Urdu/Punjabi word meaning ‘to serve with dignity, professionalism and honesty.’
“My dad was clear with women,” explains Barj Dhahan, son of Mr. Dhahan. “He would say, ‘don’t be fearful, stand up for yourself.’”
Kamlesh worked with ‘imandari’ for a salary of ₹450 per month. At today’s exchange rate, that’s worth less than $7.50 CAD. Shortly after, she was given a raise to ₹600.
Every day, six days a week, she rode her bike to and from the hospital for 10 to 12 hour shifts.
She was able to pay for her daughter to attend elementary school in Bahrowal. It was a joyous accomplishment, but a decision that caused daily, turbulent opposition from the family.
Achieving a milestone: getting her daughter to high school graduation
When her daughter completed grade 10, she wanted to go to school in Banga, a nearby city, for senior secondary school (grade 11 and 12 equivalent in Canada).
Meenu’s dad was angry. He argued that Kamlesh was wasting time and money on a girl. He was adamant that she would not go. As he put it, “when girls go to school, they go bad.”
But Kamlesh stood up to the resistance. She told her husband, “no. She is going.”
Then, she and Meenu went to Banga to enroll in her program. And, Meenu graduated.
Inspired to choose the nursing path for her daughter
While continuing to work at Guru Nanak Mission Hospital, Kamlesh would often see young girls in the nursing school on campus walking about. They wore white coats.
She thought, “if those girls can wear white coats, then why can’t my daughter wear a white coat?”
The inspiration set in. She wanted her daughter to attend Guru Nanak College of Nursing, next to the hospital where she worked.
There were just three problems:
First, Meenu was on the arts path in high school. This would mean she could only apply to enter the General Nurse-Midwifery (GNM) diploma program, not a bachelor’s program.
Secondly, Meenu’s English was not adequate, which was necessary for nursing school.
Third, they didn’t have the money to pay for school fees.
Kamlesh was not deterred. She took her daughter to meet with Mr. Dhahan. He advised that Meenu should take English classes to prepare for nursing school the following year. In the meantime, she could work on the hospital campus.
Through the help of Mr. Dhahan, and of Mrs. Mann from the United Kingdom, the nursing school fees would be covered.
To this day, Kamlesh and Meenu acknowledge that Mr. Dhahan’s encouragement and support were instrumental in changing their lives for the better. Kamlesh also recalls his wife, Mrs. Kashmir Kaur Dhahan, being an emotional support to her.
Witnessing her daughter become a licensed, practicing nurse and mother
Meenu enrolled in nursing school in 2003. By 2007, she was a licensed nurse working at the hospital where her mother laboured for years to change her destiny.
By then, her father’s attitude had made a 180-degree turn. He began telling people with pride, “go to Guru Nanak Mission Hospital. My daughter works there.”
He would tell Meenu, “there is no girl like you. My daughter is a nurse.”
In 2016, Meenu took time off to marry her husband, Rajinder Kumar, from a nearby village.
On September 9, 2018, Meenu gave birth to a daughter, Sophia.
Eventually, she returned to work as a nurse, earning ₹14,000 per month.
As a new grandma, Kamlesh continued to push Meenu to go further with her education. So, in 2022, Meenu began studying for her Post Basic B.Sc. to obtain a baccalaureate in nursing.
Meenu’s father passed away that same year.
Aspiring to greater dreams for future generations
When Meenu describes her story, she honours her mother’s hard work and tenacity. It inspired her to fulfill her mother’s dream.
When asked what her dream for her daughter is, now that she’s a mother herself, she immediately says, “my dream is that my daughter becomes a doctor.”
Change a girl’s future
We’re fundraising to send young girls to nursing school in rural Punjab.
To this day, educating girls in India still comes with barriers.
Women like Kamlesh and Meenu inspire us.
They show us that families work hard; they don’t need handouts. They need opportunities to advance.
We plan to give them those opportunities.
Whether you donate $5 or $500, your contribution WILL make a difference.
Please consider supporting this cause at the link below:
All donations within Canada receive a tax receipt.
CRA Charity Number 139033807RR0001
Our charity’s contact information is as follows:
Telephone: (604) 278-6721
Email: [email protected]
Address: 1058 – 2560 Shell Road, Richmond, B.C., V6X 0B8, Canada