Notes from the field – Of childhood and children

Notes from the field - Of childhood and children

“I’ve never been to school,” Ramya said. “I was married by 15 and had no voice in my husband’s family. My entire life was shaped by decisions made by others. I wanted to get my daughter married early too, but I realised that I cannot push her down the same difficult road that I was forced to take.”

Ramya is a member of PACT (our program with volunteer adult child protection workers) in Bhopal’s Aishbag basti, where I work with women like her, training them to be aware of child protection issues. Last month, the program completed one year since it began. During anniversary celebrations, my colleagues and I spoke to the women about what motivates them to work for child protection issues in their communities. I thought it would be a routine conversation. I didn’t realise so much more would emerge from such a simple exercise.

Growing up and living in a basti, Ramya and the other PACT women are no strangers to issues like child marriage, girls being stopped from going to school, to violence and abuse, to being suppressed. They suffered as children, with no one to listen to their problems, or their hopes and aspirations, and the course of their lives was decided by their parents or elders in their families.

“My wishes, my hopes, and all the aspirations I had when I was young, they were all suppressed,” said Preeti, a PACT worker from Ishwar Nagar. “A child’s helplessness has no voice. Even today, when I see a troubled child, I can feel the echoes of my own crushed hopes and dreams rise up to suffocate me.”

To me, it was obvious that the circumstances and experiences of their childhood had deeply impacted these women, and were the driving force behind their need to work for the safety of children. But these women had not yet made that powerful connection.

Many said this was the first time they were talking about themselves. No one had ever cared enough to ask about their experiences of their childhood. Instead, they had bottled up their feelings and conformed to what their parents, husbands, families and society had demanded of them.

When asked what motivates them to work for children, they had to address thoughts and feelings buried deep inside, those which they couldn’t articulate, identify, or were afraid to even think about. But as the women opened up, and began sharing stories of their childhood, I could sense that they were probing these feelings, trying to comprehend these thoughts.

When it clicked, I saw understanding dawn. This was the turning point, when they correlated their motivations to the issues they faced as children, when they grasped fully why it was important to listen to children, and understand their wants and needs. It was a powerful moment.

Nirmala, a PACT worker from Chhola, spoke about her childhood friend Seema, whose parents refused to educate her. “Seema wanted to go to school like me, but her parents didn’t allow her. I couldn’t do anything back then, and that upsets me even now. A wrong decision taken by parents can ruin a child’s life. I want to work for children’s safety so that there are no more victims like her,” she said.

This activity was therapeutic; I could see how much it mattered to the PACT women that someone was listening to them, believing them and trusting what they said, without questioning them.

Discussions like these are a strong way to connect with PACT workers, and important because these women are the pioneers of change in their communities. Given the progress that a group of just five women have brought about in every community over the last year, I wonder how much more can be achieved if families, caregivers and officials who work with children are similarly encouraged to identify their motivations.

Soon, we will be recruiting new groups of women in our communities to train under PACT. Each women will have the potential to engender change. Encouraging them to talk about their childhood experiences will be a vital step in motivating them to work for the protection of children in their communities.

(*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the women)

The author, Janhvi Dubey, is a Senior Program Associate at Aangan
As told to: Samyukta Maindarkar, Communication and Documentation Associate at Aangan