Manimegalai is a 17 year old girl with a dream. She dreams to be an English teacher. Excitedly, she tells me that by the time I visit again in a few years, her English would have much improved, and I believe her. She has that sparkle in her eyes, that want, that will.
It is only when she looks across to her mother that she is brought back to reality. She lowers her head and tells me, "once I finish education, I will look for work and then I will help my family build a house. I want to study more as a graduate but my parents say I should look for work because of our situation."
Manimegalai lives with her mother in a Dalit village, one hour outside of Chennai. The Dalit caste is the lowest in a much-outdated, discriminatory and hierarchical system. In many places in India, the caste you are born into still determines everything; where you can live, what job you can get and who you can marry.
Although Manimegalai is at the bottom of the pile, she is luckier than some. Her mother Menatchi is part of a local Self Help Group organised by a local charity (funded from the UK) which aims to empower local women. Through the Self Help group, Menatchi found out about a scheme which offers education scholarships to children. This means that Manimegalai can go to school, at least up to the age of 16.
Families are often then in an impossible situation. Do they let their children continue to study, especially a child like Manimegalai who is eager to learn, or at 16, send them to work. In Manimegalai's case, her mother believes that her best chance is to go to work. She tells me, if Manimegalai can go to work and earn money, we can start to build a brick home. In this communities, a better home can mean a better future. Suitable men and their families will see that Manimegalai and her family have come up, she may then be able to marry her daughter into a higher caste. This would change Manimegalai's future forever but the choice is, understandably, a difficult and ultimately unfair one.