Children from the Learning Centres we support in Bihar State, India joined with hundreds of their local friends this week, to demonstrate in Patna about the need for greater protection.
Recent cases in the media, highlighting incidents of child rape and murder, prompted the children to come out in force and call for a safer environment. They also chose to highlight issues like dowry, the halting of higher education for girls and the need for greater gender equality.
The children lined the roadsides, carrying placards and singing motivational songs. In a striking expression of their solidarity, 500 children from eight different schools, held hands in a kilometre long human chain, appealing to adults to pay more attention to safeguarding children and their rights.
Sr Veena who leads the work in the urban slums of Patna said, “We need to sensitise and educate adults to create a child-safe environment. The purpose of the human chain was to call upon all our neighbours in the wider community to be alert to issues of child protection and children’s rights”.
Veena and her team have ongoing gender equality programmes as part of their work with Dalit children in the slums of Patna. They have seen significant change in the attitudes towards girls, and made many steps towards their protection and encouragement.
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The 2018 theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #PressForProgress, with the organisers of the movement describing how “While we know that gender parity won't happen overnight, the good news is that across the world women are making positive gains day by day…there’s indeed a very strong and growing global movement of advocacy, activism and support”.
Despite significant economic progress in India, there are gaping inequalities, and these inequalities are further pronounced for women. A flagship report from UN Women shows that a young woman from a poor, rural household in India is 5.1 times as likely to be forced into child marriage and 21.8 times more likely to have never attended school than women from wealthier, urban areas.
The report goes on to say that the average Dalit woman in India dies 14.6 years younger than women from higher castes. The main focus of our work in India is to use education to break the cycle of caste discrimination for Dalit communities in Bihar State. The two partner organisations we work with are not only lead by women, but ensure that the women they work with are encouraged, supported and given positive opportunities.
Varsha Jawelgekar who leads the work of Parivartan Kendra in the rural communities outside Patna says “There are hundreds of women and girls who have come into contact with Parivartan Kendra (PK) and it has changed their lives. Half of our team are women and 98% are from Dalit communities. They were all mentored to become volunteers and slowly given the opportunity to work as staff”.
Sr Veena Jacob, founder of Navjeevan Educational and Social Welfare Centre (NESWC), heads up activities in the urban areas of Patna. She describes how “Women and girls believed that their situations couldn’t be changed but now, after working with them, they have begun to believe that if they are given the right opportunities, change is possible”.
The work in Patna includes supporting Women’s Groups attached to each Learning Centre and ensuring Gender Equality classes which are creating a significant impact in areas of child marriage and discrimination against girls.
In some of the rural communities, we have seen how having women role models as teachers is broadening the perspective of the girls they teach. A group of older girls in Madhual Village described how they were previously not allowed out of the house, and often faced harassment on the way to wherever they were going. This would continue until they are married. They said ‘Now we go to school though, and we are no longer afraid because our teacher is a woman. The best thing was attending the summer camp in Patna as we had never left the village before. It made us feel free and now we dance in the open and at each others houses!’
With a third organisation on the border of Nepal, we also support women and children to escape prostitution and trafficking, by supporting the provision of vocational education. Without this type of training, the girls report that the overwhelming expectation upon them is to work in the sex trade by age 18 or sometimes younger. For this reason, the sewing skills programme provides a critical way out of prostitution for 30 women each year.
Amita, is an 8 year old Dalit girl from Bihar State. One morning her landlord knocked at her door, demanding she replace her sick mother working in his fields. She said she was on her way to school and was mocked by the landlord and his men, who taunted her, asking if she ‘wanted to become a magistrate one day’.
When she replied ‘Why not? I could do that!’ she was beaten until she was hospitalised.
Amita’s family are not only seeking justice in the courts, but have now made their home one of the 25 Centres we support in and around Patna for Dalit children. Project leader Varsha says ‘They are without fear. They are fighting not just for themselves, but for all Dalits’.
These Centres are not just for basic learning, but through this provision of education, aim to break the cycle of oppression that children like Amita face. Centres are creatively placed, not only in homes like Amita’s, but riversides, rooftops and under trees. They learn maths, English, Hindi and all the skills that they are often denied at mainstream school, but they also learn about their rights and how to realise them.
Sahlil attended our Learning Centre in Narangi Sarsikan village. After learning in class about the rights his community is entitled to, he decided to address the lack of clean water in the area. With the support of his teacher, he wrote to the local government and two new water pumps have now been installed in the village.
As a result of learning at the Centre, Sahil has now entered mainstream school. He says “Since going to the Centre, people value me and I have respect. I want to be a doctor and change people’s lives, but I am starting with changing the village!”
Varsha says ‘If Dalit children grow up thinking they are nothing, then they will expect nothing in life. Education is the start of this change.”
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We work with partners in Bihar State, India, providing education for ‘Dalit’ children who are denied access to school. Recently we have established a new ‘rooftop’ school as a creative solution to providing education in a severely crowded and muddy slum area.
Despite the caste system being outlawed, its hierarchical rules still pervade across India and result in the oppression and exclusion of those in ‘lower’ castes. The Dalits are considered to be the bottom rung of the caste system, and are often known as ‘untouchables’.
We support 25 schools in Patna, both in the urban and rural areas, but recently our partners identified one urban slum area facing severe poverty, crowding and appalling conditions. The ground is too sodden and muddy to build on, there is a lack of space to rent and any shelter that is available is often cramped, dark and flooded. The idea for a 'rooftop' school provided a creative solution for a classroom, avoiding the muddy slum floor. The children are now able to be out in the fresh air, using the rooftop school to gain an education.
This urban slum area where the new school is located is a ‘Musahar’ community, who are considered the lowest strata of the Dalit caste, also known as ‘rat eaters’. The children that attend this school have been called ‘rat pickers’ by locals, and we are working with them, not only to provide education, but to rebuild their sense of self worth and awareness of their rights.
Sister Veena, project leader in the urban Patna schools says “Every person has an inbuilt capacity for change. Children with limited resources are able to bring a change in their lives and life of the community. I would like to see their self esteem and self image grow stronger. I want them to grow in a loving and caring atmosphere”.
Just £22 pays for a month’s rent for the rooftop classroom.
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Read more about our work in India
Recently our partners in India have organised a Summer Camp; a week full of games and activities for hundreds of Dalit children in Patna, who attend our Education Centres. As well as being a time for fun, the week was also designed to develop the skills and talents of the children and to build up their confidence and self esteem.
The Dalit people in India face ingrained caste discrimination, often excluding them from education and medical facilities. Despite the caste system being outlawed, it still causes severe persecution, restricting where Dalits can live and what jobs they can have.
The Centres we support provide education and have a strong focus on helping children understand their rights. The curriculum encourages them to realise these rights, and break out of the vicious cycle of discrimination and poverty.
Every child during Summer Camp was invited to participate in all the games and activities and each day, one of the youngest boys and girls from each Centre were selected to be the ‘Guest of Honour’. They were welcomed in the morning with the 'Summer Camp Cap' and were responsible for announcing the winners of each game.
Older children from each Centre were selected each day as leaders. Their role was to motivate the other children and inspire teamwork. Earning points for their Centre was a great motivating factor! All of the games and activities were chosen because they built group thinking and teamwork. The older children were also invited to give a small speech on the theme of working together.
Sister Veena who leads the Centres in Patna said “It was so interesting to see the coaching that the children gave to each other before starting each game. We wanted the whole week to be a joyful experience, but we also wanted to build confidence. We gave opportunities to as many children as possible. They will remember being a guest of honour or a leader in the class. This gives them dignity and improves their self esteem.”
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In Patna, India we support two local partners who are using education and non-violent community action to tackle the culturally ingrained caste system. In addition to basic education, the centres run by these organisations are focussed on helping children to be aware of their rights, to respect and value other people and build a more inclusive society.
A big component of this is learning about gender equality. Sr Veena who leads this work in the urban slums of Patna says ‘We were not aware of the extent of gender inequality and bias that exists in our society. We realised through the classes that adolescent girls and children were just accepting the social barriers in their homes and in public places”.
Girls at home are regularly denied various items like ghee and milk, and are given poorer quality clothes. Through the gender equality classes, they began to challenge this in their families, and at least 44 have already seen their home situations improve.
The gender equality classes are directed at those not already in the centres, and they cover a range of subjects including ‘good touch and bad touch’, ideas of gender and how they are acquired, gender inequality at home, group pressure, violence, media and ‘the qualities of an empowered person’.
A major social barrier for girls here is access to learning. After this programme 88 children joined the education programme, 35 of these had never had any schooling and 80% were girls. Having gained the confidence to negotiate with their parents about the importance of education, these girls were allowed to begin classes.
One girl called Joya said “I was a very shy person. I had lot of fear. Even if someone beat me I never said anything. My teacher understood my problem, and through the gender training we were told we have to raise our voice against injustice and violence. I was not allowed to study. But at home I fought for my right to study after the training. I am a girl and I have a right to learn”.
The equality classes are for both boys and girls, with the understanding that everyone must work together to make a change. One boy called Vikas described how “We learnt so much more than just ‘school’ at the Centre. We learned about gender awareness, ‘Peace Day’ and ‘good touch and bad touch’. One day on the road I was walking. I saw a man touching a girl badly. I told him that you have no right to touch the girls. He was ashamed and put his head down and said ‘sorry’ to the girl and left her alone. I thank Ms Amisha for giving the class on good and bad touch.”
Outside of these classes work is done with parents through local Women’s Groups. These groups learn about saving and business, about how to claim the land and financial opportunities they are entitled to and how to create a groundswell of awareness regarding their rights. Through this they receive training on gender equality, helping them to understand that equal rights for their children starts at home. This has sometimes been a challenge, as Sr Veena describes:
“For women in the groups, it was very difficult for them to accept that they discriminate against their daughters and daughters-in-law at home. It will take time for women to accept that much gender discrimination is done by them at home. Unless you accept this, there cannot be any change. Three child marriages (of 13-14 year old girls) from one centre were stopped due to this awareness. At the same time three young girls were married from this area. It is a challenge for us we need to create more awareness about child marriage in the community”.
The teachers at the centres are all trained in gender equality, and many have struggled with social barriers themselves. Prisha was made to work with her father, from the age of 6 to 15 years in a footpath tea stall. Working until 10 pm each day, the intense workload and unhygienic condition of the place resulted in her legs and hands becoming deformed.
Sister Veena describes how “She did not give up her will to be educated. She cried insistently, so her father allowed her to attend the government school during the day. The problem was that there was no time to study or do homework, but she used to hide her book in the shop and continue her studies through to grade 10. Whenever he saw her studying in the shop, she was scolded and her books were thrown away.”
Soon after this her parents sent Prisha to another workplace outside the area. At this point our local partners supported her, brought her back to Patna and enabled her to begin her higher level study. She is teaching in one of the education centres and caring for other girls who are facing barriers to education.
Veena describes how at the start of the gender equality lessons, the girls were all intent on being called ‘son’ by family members and people in the community, rather than ‘daughter’. They said that they preferred the sense of identity it gave them. After four trainings, the girls all changed their thought patterns and expressed a desire to to be called ‘daughter’. Families started to increasingly adopt the term ‘Beti’, meaning ‘dear or darling daughter’.
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Few people are aware that the India-Nepal border is one of the largest corridors for human trafficking on the planet. While the outside world pays little notice, the problem has reached endemic proportions with an estimate of nearly 200,000 Nepalis having already been trafficked into India.
The vast majority of these victims are women and children who are subjected to forced labour, prostitution, and sexual abuse. The porous, 400-mile-long border between southern Nepal and Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, is an ideal environment for traffickers to operate within. There has been a further spike in the trafficking of women and children since the devastating April 2015 earthquake in Nepal.
Each year an estimated 7,000-10,000 women and children are trafficked through Bihar, many ending up in de facto slavery in Bihar’s red-light zones. With nearly a quarter of those trafficked below the age of 16, the situation is particularly grave for children. Currently, the precedent for young girls in these communities is to follow their mothers into prostitution.
What we are doing to help
Together with local organization Tatvasi Samaj Nyas (TSN), Children on the Edge has established two education and skills training centres in two of Bihar’s most prominent red light areas. Cut off from society at large, the government will not run schools in the red-light areas, so these centres aim to provide training and care to some of India’s most vulnerable children. By offering basic education and information about their value and rights as children, the hope is that these children will explore alternative options to the sex trade.
Currently the main activity at the centres is a sewing skills programme which provides preparatory job training to 15 teenage girls at each site. The goal of this is to not only to equip young women with a skill with which they can support themselves, but also provide a practical means for them to leave the red-light area where they live.
Each student is provided with their own sewing machine, which will then belong to her upon completion of the programme. “Having a machine of their own to start a new life with, gives these girls so much more confidence,” says John Littleton, our Asia Regional Manager. “These young women would otherwise be unable to save the money needed to buy one, without resorting to loan sharks or prostitution. It’s a small gift that can make a huge difference in the trajectory of their lives.”
Without this type of training, the girls report that the overwhelming expectation upon them is to work in the sex trade by age 18 or sometimes younger. For this reason, the sewing skills programme provides a critical way out of prostitution for 30 women each year.
Conditions are cramped in the classrooms, yet the enthusiasm of the girls is clear to see. Lajuli aged 14, says, “I am hoping that these classes will give me a way to leave this community.” Her goal is to become a seamstress and sewing teacher in the nearby town of Prunea once her training is complete later this year. From there, she says, she can begin a new life outside of the brothel area.
Further, the programme offers non-formal education classes in subjects like math and literacy to over sixty school-aged children at two learning centres in the red-light areas. These centres are a place where children can leave behind the uncertainty of their surroundings and feel secure. Teachers are trained to work with the students to create a safe and caring environment where the children are free to express themselves.
For young Mehul, aged 10 years old, these classes are the only exposure to education he has ever received. His typical day is spent helping his father work the crops in a nearby field and care for his younger siblings. His favourite subject is maths, and he hopes that the skills he learns will prepare him to run his own shop someday.
Special effort is also made to emphasise the intrinsic value of each child, as migrants or members of the Dalit castes often feel scorned by the society around them. The aim of the programme is to educate them about their rights and help them engage with the world outside of the red-light district.
Our aim is to build the capacity of these Centres and link them with our partners in Patna for training, so they can strengthen their current small-scale education provision for children living in these communities. The Centres will develop their teaching, enabling students to receive lessons in reading, writing, maths, and hygiene, alongside creative activities important for helping them cope with their difficult surroundings. We would also like to build up more resources for the sewing programme.
When we say we bring hope, life, colour and fun to the lives of vulnerable children, it’s 'hope' that kicks off the list, and with good reason. Hope is the cornerstone of what we believe is vital for children living in desperate situations, because it’s all about change.
Hope could be seen as a fluffy, sentimental term; something to inspire a kind of 'sunshiny' feeling about helping children, but we think it’s the opposite.
Children that live in the situations where we are working don’t need something fluffy, they need something revolutionary. These are children facing war, persecution, poverty and injustice and in the current political climate, the need is not abating. Nationalism is on the rise, compassion is fatigued and barriers are growing.
In her book, ‘Hope in the Darkness’, Rebecca Solnit says that ‘Hope is an act of defiance… the alternative is surrender, which abandons not only the future, but the soul’. At present, our work with children living on the edges of their societies is more vital than ever, and it works in defiance of the status quo that marginalises children on the basis of their race, caste, class or ethnic minority.
In October an 65, 000 Rohingya refugees fled horrific human rights abuses in Myanmar, joining the masses of refugees already in Bangladesh, who have been fleeing government persecution for over a decade. It’s here we are providing education for 2,700 Rohingya children in a makeshift refugee camp.
Late last year, an 8 year old Dalit girl in Bihar State, India was beaten by a group of men when she dared to say that she could be a magistrate or the chief of police one day. It’s here that we are supporting education and non-violent activism to tackle ingrained caste discrimination and help ‘untouchable’ children realise their rights.
Currently, the practice of child sacrifice in Uganda is still going unreported and there are gaps in legislation enabling perpetrators to go free. It is here that we are working with a Ugandan child rights group, and the government to address the problem, whilst expanding our child protection teams in communities.
Hope is an act of defiance which often begins in the margins of society. Going forward we will highlight how it motivates action and inspires both rapid transformation and long term evolution.
Read our latest blog: 'How hope is a catalyst for action and ownership'
“I was expected to be quiet, and told not to ask questions, but I questioned everything I saw that was wrong around me” - Ten question for Varsha Jawalgekar on how to #BeBoldForChange
Throughout March and inspired by International Women's Day, we have been celebrating how the women on our projects encourage us to #BeBoldForChange. We are privileged to be partnering with a number of truly inspirational women, who use boldness and strength to bring about change for the women and girls in their communities.
Varsha Jawalgekar is the leader of Parivartan Kendra (PK) who we partner with in Bihar State, India. Children on the Edge support them in their work to end discrimination against the Dalit people in Patna, through education and community action. We asked her 10 questions about how to #BeBoldForChange.
Small groups of Dalit women are ensuring shelter, education and safety for their communities by raising their voices in Bihar State, India.
In and around Patna Children on the Edge support two small, dynamic organisations who are fighting against caste discrimination for the children in their communities. They do this through a combination of education and local action, with a major strand of this action being rooted in the creation of Women’s Groups.
In the rural villages surrounding Patna, our partner Parivartan Kendra (PK) support 10 community women’s groups. Their key strategy in bringing change in these communities is the strengthening and development of these groups, each of which has around 25 women who work closely with their area’s education centre in trying to help the community, including its children, realise their rights.
One of the key priorities of the women’s groups is ensuring that their children are given access to education so that they can break out of the poverty cycle and the trap of bonded labour. Their aim is to slowly create a groundswell of awareness regarding rights, which then leads to action and the realisation of those rights.
Varsha Jawalgekar is the leader of this organisation, she says ‘I believe the only way real change can be brought in Dalit communities is through collective action, through the gathering and the rising up of many’. The community have witnessed how an individual fighting alone for their rights, is not only timely and ineffective, but dangerous. Varsha herself has been jailed and beaten, but more disturbingly an 8 year old girl was was badly beaten by a landowner simply for telling him she was going to school. He mocked her with caste names and asked her if she would be a magistrate or police officer when she grew up. When she said ‘why not?’ he attacked her with an axe. She is still experiencing medical problems as a result, and her parents are fighting for her case in the courts.
Varsha believes that communities as a whole must be taught about their rights and supported to stand up together, safely and peacefully fighting for change. This is not just a theory; the women’s groups are already bringing change.
Under Indian law, Dalits living below the poverty line are just as entitled as the rest of the population to certain allowances for housing, food and free health care. In practice though, Dalits face corruption and discrimination regarding these entitlements. They also experience practical difficulties in applying for them as many are illiterate and lack the required identification papers.
One group in the Chakfeteh area has been running for eight years and is well established. They recently ensured that 19 households received housing entitlements (financial allowance for housing). They did this through training on their basic legal rights and entitlements and being supported to complete the paperwork.
Another example of change was brought by the women’s group is in Madhaul. Dalit children at the community school here were experiencing high levels of violence and discrimination. Being treated as ‘untouchable’ is outlawed, but teachers here were making them sit separately, physically abusing them and denying them access to lessons and school meals.
Varsha and the women’s group here conducted a peaceful protest in front of the school. As a result they were locked up in a classroom by the headmaster, who made threats about ‘boiling them alive’. Varsha called the police, who freed them and demanded the headmaster apologise. Although this seems like a a lenient consequence, it sent a strong message throughout the community about the practice of discrimination based upon caste. The women’s group have since reported positive changes in the school’s treatment of their children, as a direct result of their actions.
A few years ago in Patna, two Dalit children were kidnapped from a poor area with a high crime rate. Many Dalit children are abducted here with no reprisals due to local corruption, so Varsha and some of her colleagues sat in the middle of the road until a traffic jam built up in order to get a proper response from the authorities. When the police arrived they said that the children could be brought back to the women within the hour. This is not only clear evidence that the police are involved in trafficking, but that Varsha’s model of standing up collectively against discrimination, does yield results.
Change here is gradual and hard won. Through an outlawed yet active caste system, Dalit children here face severe discrimination, violence and poverty. They go un-noticed locally due to cultural norms and are overlooked internationally because of India’s relative wealth. Children on the Edge are committed to supporting our partners in bringing lasting change for these children and their communities.
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