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Celebrating International Women's Day with stories of veritable lionesses

05 March 2017

“Give your Mum, Sister, Grandma or auntie a big hug and thank her for something they have done for you”, reads the message on my 8 year old daughter, Aleena’s Lenten Calendar for 8th March, International Women’s Day. 

This week, the action I will take to celebrate International Women’s Day, is to share with Aleena some of the social, cultural and educational achievements of the women in her family.

As a proud father, I see infinite potential in my daughter. I want her to grow up to be a leader who cares deeply about the people around her. I believe that a component of leadership is the ability to tell your story. Aleena’s story is still developing and I want her to feel stronger, more confident and poised to face her own challenges and take up future opportunities by the knowledge that she has, through her family, the DNA of veritable lionesses.

I hope by sharing just one of these stories, you too might be inspired to share the stories of strong female leaders with your children this week.

Violet’s story. Born 1911. A student of life, a mother and a teacher. Aleena’s great-grandmother

As a student, Violet carried off the first prize in most of her subjects and the class prize every year. Her class prizes were always books. As a child, I can recall reading a beautiful copy of one of these prizes - Little Women, one of her favourite books. This love of reading is one that Violet always carried.

She brought this love of reading and education to her children, the children she fostered, her grand-children and later in life as a teacher. In her 40s, she was the Head of the Primary Education in a girl’s school in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

On a cold, grey, wet day in 1964, Violet, at 53 years garbed in her traditional clothing, a sari, joined thousands of tourists and migrants, arriving by boat at London’s major port, Tilbury Dock. Imagine the contrast the bright vibrant colours of her sari would have in that setting? This was Violet’s first visit to London, UK and she was here to stay and make a difference. She had in her purse 3GBP to begin this new life.

In the 1960s the British government, faced by shortage of key workers welcomed teachers and nurses from Commonwealth countries. This, helped Violet choose to take that one way boat trip to Tilbury Dock. For her, it was an easy choice to select this new life over the life of a relatively wealthy widow, that she would have led in Colombo after the death of my grandfather, a lawyer, passed away. I’m awed by the courage she showed in choosing a path least travelled to rise by lifting other ups as a teacher in another country.

Violet travelled to Tower Hamlets, in London’s East End to become a teacher at Bonner Primary School. Today, in 2017, nowhere is the disparity between sectors of our society more apparent than in Tower Hamlets, which has long been associated with some of the worst poverty in Britain. About 50% of children come from families living on unemployment benefits. Tower Hamlets is also home to the towers of Canary Wharf, a hub of banking and commerce, making the borough one of the wealthiest parts of Britain, too.

At Bonner Primary School, my grandmother continued for the rest of the 1960s and much of the 1970s to teach primary schoolers. She helped provide these children and indeed her own grandchildren (myself included) a broader view of the world, shaped by her experience from the other side of the world. She was well liked by her fellow teachers and she always spoke fondly of her time at the school and the role she played in introducing learning to a generation of East Enders.