Yesterday, voting kicked off for the world’s largest election, with Indians in 20 states casting their votes in the first of seven phases, leading up to counting on the 23rd May. With 900 eligible voters, this is the largest election ever seen, but an illegal yet culturally pervasive caste system is stunting the course to genuine democracy.
Children on the Edge supports two active and engaged local partners in Patna, Bihar State. These organisations work to break the cycle of discrimination against the Dalit caste through education and community activism.
The caste system assigns individuals a certain hierarchical status according to Hindu beliefs. Traditionally there are four principal castes (divided into thousands of sub-categories) and a fifth category of people who fall outside of the caste system; the Dalits.
Veena Jacob who leads local organisation Navjeevan says “In the Bihar elections yesterday only 41% of voters turned out. Many Dalits were stopped from voting, even though the Dalit cause is not really a concern for any of the candidates. There was firing in Nawada constituency as people came to vote without ID cards. This firing was done by criminals, not by the police”.
Many Dalit people have no way of getting ID cards because of a lack of literacy or access to computers. The work we support here creates opportunities through local women’s groups where Dalit women can learn about their rights and legal entitlements and how to access them, from filling out forms and signing their names to protesting about the bad treatment of their children and learning how to start a small business. A new Computer Centre provides IT access and training.
Veena describes how “The situation is very intense during this period of election, which is taking place in stages. The people we work with are so poor they can easily be paid to vote a certain way and are very frightened not to follow through with it once they have taken money out of desperation”.
The Indian Constitution includes specific protections for Dalits, who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy and make up about 15 to 20 percent of the population, but as the election unfolds it remains to be seen whether they have any genuine opportunity to have a voice within the world’s largest democracy.
Last year on International Women’s Day, we highlighted the plight of Dalit women in India, who not only face crippling discrimination and abuse because of their gender, but also because of their caste.
The theme was ‘Press for Progress’ and since then we have been supporting our partners to do just this, ready to celebrate their achievements this year, with the theme ‘Balance for better’.
To help create safe places for vulnerable children around the world, we empower women (and men) to realise their rights. We work with the community as a whole, rather than providing stand alone children's services. Communities have a right to build protective environments for their own children, and over the years we have seen that this ownership is the key to lasting change.
In Patna, India, you can see this in action through the 50 Women’s Groups run by our partner organisation, Navjeevan. The groups offer meetings and workshops which talk about health issues, governments schemes and free services available for poor women. We help these women to access vital medical services, like maternity care, by accompanying them to the hospital, or assisting with filling in the correct paperwork.
As a result of these groups, countless women have started to see incredible change in their lives, many going on to support other women. Take a look at just some of the amazing stories below.
Baby said: “Starting the shop was a turning point in my life. It gave me self confidence and changed my thinking pattern. Today I have recognition in my community as a shopkeeper and I feel proud of myself. Joining the Women’s Group gave me the opportunity to brighten up my life”.
Through your support, our partners in India are ensuring that women and children from some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in Patna, India, are able to access their rights. Our Women's Groups are empowering women to make change and improve their lives, and those of their families. Could you make a small donation to help us continue this work?
£50 can provide a year's training for a Women's Group in India - less than £5 a month.
By making a regular monthly donation to Children on the Edge, you can help ensure our work in India to support vulnerable women continues. Become a regular donor today >>
After a double trip to our projects in Bangladesh and India this month, our International Director - Rachel Bentley shares five highlights that reflect some great progress for the children we work with.
Since 2012, the 11th October has been marked by the UN as the International Day of the Girl. It aims to highlight and address the challenges girls face, while promoting girls' empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights.
This year’s theme is entitled ‘With Her: A Skilled GirlForce’ as in the next decade, 90% of girls entering the workforce in developing countries will work in the informal sector, where low or no pay, abuse and exploitation are common. The theme this year seeks to promote the expansion of learning opportunities for girls and calls on the global community to rethink how to prepare girls for a successful transition into the world of work.
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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.”
Read more about our work in India