A young girl strives to rise above hardship
October 2011: Esther Vishvani (14) and her family are determined to build a better future for themselves despite their challenges, reports Hema Balasundaram.
By Hema Balasundaram
KUALA LUMPUR, 13 October 2011 – You wouldn’t guess from talking to 14-year-old Esther Vishvani what she and her family have been through in the past few years. She is outgoing, confident, and always ready with a smile. “It’s easy for me to make friends, I have a lot of friends here,” she says about her housing complex.
Since mid-2010, Esther has lived with her parents and three siblings in a rented low-cost flat in Kuala Lumpur. It is one of the 1,896 units in the complex, a high-rise project that is part of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government’s initiative to provide low-cost housing for households with a monthly income of less than RM 1,500. The family moved there after they lost their previous low-cost flat to foreclosure.
Esther is happy with their current home, where she shares a small bedroom with her two sisters. At the earlier residence, there were problems with the electricity and water supply, as well with youth violence. “It was so difficult to run our normal life. It there is no electricity, we can’t study and do any work; if there’s no water, we can’t bathe or do any of the work,” she says. She is succinct about the violence: “They get drunk and they fight.”
The foreclosure was the result of years of financial hardship that started when Esther’s father, Ramakrishnan, was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2001. The illness forced him to stop working for extended periods, but he has recently taken on a job as a security guard, working 12-hour overnight shifts. His wife Josephine has been working two jobs as a cleaner to support the family.
Futures at stake
The family’s tight income means that sometimes, necessary purchases have to be delayed or foregone. Josephine says that even when it comes to basic things her children need, for example a RM 10 shirt or a new pair of shoes, she has to think twice. She sometimes has to say ‘no’ to them and worries about the effect it has. “At a particular time, I may not have money available. I feel heavy-hearted that they’re asking and I can’t provide.”
For her part, 14-year-old Esther takes it all in stride. “When I ask my mum and she says, ‘I don’t have money now,’ I just leave it.” She doesn’t want to place added pressure on her parents as she knows the constraints they are under. “I will just accept it. That’s my policy.”
For many children experiencing poverty, their futures are under threat. “Poverty is not just about income,” says UNICEF Representative to Malaysia Hans Olsen. “It deprives children of their basic needs and affects them not just materially, but emotionally and spiritually as well. It can lower educational achievement and health outcomes.”
Malaysia has done well in reducing the overall poverty rate, but it is estimated that over 720,000 children under 15 are subjected to the multiple deprivations of poverty, according to the Malaysia Millennium Development Goals Report 2010.
“UNICEF has partnered with the Malaysian Government to address child poverty and is proposing the development of a set of child well-being indicators that will allow for policy-makers to better understand multidimensional child poverty. These indicators will help with monitoring socio-economic progress and targets that are set out in the 10th Malaysia Plan, and identifying critical action.” adds Mr. Olsen.
Despite multiple disadvantages – of income, education, health and housing – many individual families can and do overcome the odds. Josephine and Ramakrishnan did not obtain any education beyond the primary level, but have high hopes for their children and take the effort to nurture their children’s potential.
“My life and my mother’s, they’re the same. Her life was hard; so is mine. It breaks my heart to think about it,” says Josephine, who had to start working when she was eight. Her children’s lives, she insists, must be different. “They must be well educated and get good jobs.”
That determination seems to be paying off, as Esther and her siblings are all doing well both academically and in extra-curricular activities.
Child poverty is complex, but the goal in addressing it is clear: to ensure all children, including those living in circumstances like Esther’s, can develop to their full potential and chart their own futures.