For a 14-year-old Meena from Raebareli, the 4 Desert Ultramarathon might not mean much but it might just change her life. And the lives of many like her. From the ‘sapera’ community, Meena had to drop out of school and take care of household chores and siblings. The number of children who drop out of school ranges from 62.1 million (HRD Ministry) to 84 million (2011 census). This was made worse by the pandemic in 2020.
Whatever the number, the girls bear the brunt of gendered social norms that pulls them out of school to take care of the house at an age when they should be in school building a future and living carefree lives. “It is sad to even imagine a girl child being denied education or forced to marry because there is no money for fees. The pandemic made me decide to raise money to help educate them,” says Taher Merchant.
38-year-old Taher, a father of two girls, will be running the 4 Desert Ultramarathon to support education for underprivileged children. He is set to become the first Indian Participant for 2021 to attempt the 4 Desert Ultramarathon Gland Slam, a race which comprises of running 250km across 4 deserts in one calendar year. There are less than 75 individuals worldwide who have accomplished the Grand Slam since its inception. This is an annual event of four 250 km races across some of the most beautiful and dangerous desert landscapes in the world— Namib Race (Namibia), Gobi March (Mongolia), Atacama Crossing (Chile) and The Last Desert (Antarctica). Each race will have to be completed in seven days.
Taher is no stranger to fitness and fundraiser challenges. In 2020 he took part in Oxfam India’s Trailwalker Virtual-Challenge to walk in solidarity with the migrant labourers, who were stranded without money or job after the lock-down that was announced on 25 March 2020. This year again, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, Taher participated in the Oxfam Trailwalker Virtual-challenge—#WalkForHer— to end gender inequality.
About the Ultramarathon he says, “The idea of exploring how far I can push my body and mind has always excited me. In 2016, when I finished the Ladakh Marathon which is considered to be one of the toughest in India, I felt I had to do something even more challenging. And a couple of years later I found myself running across five Himalayan passes and completing the world’s highest Ultra Marathon in 19 hours, 15 minutes and 10 seconds.”
But his search for an even more gruelling challenge was still on. “This search for the next exciting race ended when I came across the 4 Deserts Ultramarathon Series. Now, I get to cover over 250 km across some of the most beautiful and forbidding landscapes of the world.”
Taher decided to take this challenge for a cause. For children like Meena, who were already disadvantaged but suffered even more during the pandemic due to the digital divide and economic disparity. For Taher, the issue of girl child education hit home even harder than he has two daughters.
“I was amazed that Oxfam India changed the lives of over a million people in a year. Oxfam India works at the grassroots with high levels of donor transparency, something I was very particular about. Oxfam India supports many causes but its work on fighting gender discrimination and providing education to a girl child is a cause that is very close to my heart. It’s time we all came together to make a difference in other’s lives.”
The money that Taher raises will support Oxfam India’s work on education. Oxfam India has been working to train youth volunteers to take offline classes for children who have no access to digital education, track out of school children, prevent early marriage and drop out of girl child by counselling parents and teachers, monitoring the quality of education and implementation of the Right to Education Act, and training parents and communities to make them aware of the need of education as well as making schools accountable.
“I hope my run across some of the deadliest deserts of the world will inspire youth to take up fundraising too in whatever way they can,” says Taher. Currently, he is training for the 4 Deserts Ultramarathon Series. In peak week he is clocking 120-200Km. The first race, Gobi March in Mongolia, is scheduled for June.
Oxfam India’s CEO Amitabh Behar says, “Taher is gearing up for something remarkable and we don’t get to see this every day! We are thrilled about the upcoming challenge and extending all our support to him. Taher has constantly supported Oxfam India’s initiative and now he will be running to change lives. He is an inspiration for all.”
Taher is currently training in the Himalayas, Ladakh and Rajasthan to conquer the challenge ahead — the challenge of the marathon as well as the challenge to ensure that Meena and millions like her make it to school and build a better future of dignity and equality.