Sharifa Sheikh, a Class 10 student of New Sion Koliwada Municipal School, with her repair kit. Pic/ Suresh Karkera

By all appearances, Sharifa Sheikh is like a typical 14-year-old -- trying to put off the homework for the day as her mind wanders to a hundred places at once.

But, nudge the Class 10 student to talk about her future and suddenly clarity emerges. "I want to be a software engineer!" Her eyes glisten, as she drops her shy demeanour. But she would have to strike out on her own; the most literate member of her family is a matriculate sister.

Sheikh, a resident of a Sion slum, begun saving up for her education, thanks to the skills she acquired during a 100-hour training programme last year. In her spare time, she repairs mobile phones of customers from the vicinity. She deposits the money she earns in a bank account opened in her name.


With mother Mabunisha Zainuddin Sheikh (second from left), grandmother and younger sister

On her own
The third of five children, Sheikh realised she would have to fuel her career ambitions on her own. "I didn't want to pressure my parents into scrounging for funds for my higher education," she says. Her father, who works with a shoe manufacturing company, is the sole breadwinner of the family.

Following her training, she took a leap of faith by first repairing her mother's cellphone, that had been lying unused for some time. "That took her by surprise. She never realised that someone so young could repair a mobile phone," recalls the student of New Sion Koliwada Municipal School.

Her reputation grew by word of mouth. "Soon, many people approached me to repair their phones," she says.

Today, she claims that she can resolve any physical defect. "I can repair all kinds of phones, be it touchscreen or with Qwerty keypads." She sources spare parts from Manish Market at Fort and adds a service charge to their cost.

Sharifa Sheikh with her repair kit at her home in Sion
Sharifa Sheikh with her repair kit at her home in Sion

1.9k kids trained
Sheikh owes her skills -- and her newfound confidence -- to Salaam Bombay, an NGO working for the welfare of the city's underprivileged children, that trained her between August and November last year a part of its skills@school programme, which aims to equip underprivileged children with skills necessary for improved employment upon completion of school. Each child can pick from options like beauty and wellness, home appliance repair, tailoring, mobile repair, computer hardware repair, web designing, graphic designing and auto service. Since its inception in 2013, the initiative has trained about 1,900 children, 1,000 of whom have been girls. Sheikh was the only girl in a batch of 20 students who enrolled for the mobile repair course last year.

"Students are encouraged to choose their desired course based on their interests and aptitude, and not their gender," explains Sneha Menon, project manager of skills@school. "More boys have enrolled this year for the beauty and wellness course than last year. Likewise, the number of girl in technical courses has increased, and in some cases, surpassing the count of boys."

Breaking barriers
Sheikh says the course has helped her shatter age and gender stereotypes. "I didn't want to settle for a beautician course. People can't hide their surprise on finding out that I'm only 14 years old. Plus, they harbour regressive notions about girls' technical prowess, which again I'm hoping to change."

Her mother, Mabunisha Za­inuddin Sheikh, is hoping to realise unfulfilled dreams thr­o­­ugh her. "We never discouraged her from pursuing education. I wasn't lucky eno­ugh to chase after my dreams. I don't want her to feel the same pangs of regret. Her determination is inspirational. If she sets her mind on a task, she doesn't rest till she completes it."

Mabunisha says Sheikh's success has taken all of the slum by surprise. "People keep coming to us, asking if she can repair their phones. We are filled with pride."