Notes from the field: Hopes and dreams on International Youth Day

The United Nations’ International Youth Day, celebrated every year on August 12, is an opportunity to highlight issues faced by young people around the world.

Bihar

Snapshot from International Youth Day in Bihar

In the current global climate – the refugees fleeing crises in Syria, Iraq and Libya, the instability in Africa, and the financial woes of Greece and the rest of Europe – children and the youth, as always, are the worst affected. Yet, even in such adverse circumstances, it is the youth who are the drivers of development and change.

This year’s theme – “Youth Civic Engagement” – is particularly relevant for the children in the communities that Aangan works in. Most of these children live in bastis or hutments, which have little by way of access to basic services such as water supply, electricity, schools, hospitals or even toilets. International Youth Day is, therefore, also an opportunity to recognise and promote the participation of young people in the development of society.

Snapshot from International Youth Day in Uttar Pradesh

Snapshot from International Youth Day in Uttar Pradesh

Through programs aimed at building their resilience and knowledge, and supporting them to negotiate with adults and the government, these children are empowered to raise their voices on the issues that impact them and their communities. They can play a vital role in shaping their society because no one can represent their communities better than them. Their thoughts and ideas, therefore, matter a great deal, and this idea is something that must be inculcated in both adults as well as children.

Therefore, on August 12, children in 10 communities across four of the states that Aangan works in came together to discuss the issues pertaining to their community that they would like to tackle. Through role-plays, songs and debate, they spoke of how they can use their skills and talents to bring about effective change in their neighbourhoods.

Snapshot from Mumbai

Snapshot from International Youth Day in Mumbai

Raghav*, 15, said his community would be much improved “if everyone kept their own homes clean”, and did not throw garbage everywhere. “It spreads diseases,” he explained. “If we stopped littering and made sure the water supply is not contaminated, a lesser number of people will fall ill, and we won’t be spending so much money on hospitals and medicines.

Apart from more immediately actionable issues such as cleanliness, hygiene and open defecation, children also spoke about the sexual harassment girls faced in their basti, gender equality, and why education for girls was of vital importance.

A mother, a wife, and a sister are all first and foremost girls. No society can function without girls and women. Then, why are we so oppressed and considered lesser than men?” 15-year-old Pooja* asked the room.

Santosh*, a 14-year-old youth representative on his school management committee, stressed on the importance of educating every child, regardless of their gender. “Boys who don’t go to school end up loitering around and whiling away their time. So many of them start doing drugs. Education is important, most definitely for girls, but equally so for boys.

In many of the communities that Aangan works in, children have already worked to get streetlights installed, hand pumps repaired, out-of-school children enrolled in school, negotiated with government officials to improve sanitation services, and helped families gain access to government services and schemes. Through their actions, entire communities have benefitted.

Initiatives such as these most effectively demonstrate the power of youth, and the change they are capable of.

*Children’s names have been changed to protect their identity.

The author, Samyukta Maindarkar, is Communications Associate at Aangan.

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Building safe schools: Why child protection is a shared responsibility

The last few years have seen an alarming rise in the overall number of crimes against children. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 58,224 cases were reported in the country in 2013. This figure represents an over 50% rise compared to 2012, when 38,172 cases were reported.

And these are just the cases that have been reported. Thousands of other children suffer in silence.

Yet, the idea of child protection – and that children have the right to remain safe everywhere, regardless of time and place – is still not mainstream, nor is the idea that child protection is everyone’s responsibility. We all come in contact with children every day, be they our own, our nephews and nieces, or the neighbour’s kids. And when we see a child in distress, we want to help out – only to be held back because we don’t know what to do.

The #ActNow campaign by Aangan, an NGO that works on child protection issues, aims to encourage and inspire everyday citizens and the general public to take part in child protection, and to spread the message that child protection is a shared responsibility. As part of the campaign, a group of school principals, parents, heads of education boards and educationists came together for a roundtable discussion on Tuesday at YMCA, Mumbai, to address issues pertaining to child safety in schools. The aim of the discussion was to develop guidelines that schools, parent groups and other interested people can use to formulate their own child protection policies, thus creating safe environments for children.

School has often been termed as a second home for children – a statement that stands true since, next to the home, school is where children spend most of their time and come into contact with peers and adults who influence their behaviour. Children therefore have the right to be safe and secure in the school environment, and to have a voice to speak up if they aren’t. Yet violations of various forms – from bullying and corporal punishment to sexual abuse and rape – committed against children are constantly reported from schools across the country.

The concept of safe schools is important because, as Spokey Wheeler, co-founder of Adhyayan, an organisation that works to improve the quality of learning and leadership in schools, pointed out, the role of a school is no longer restricted to just within its own boundaries. External factors such as smartphones and social media – and their fallouts, like cyber-bullying – have a huge impact on children’s safety, and present new challenges for schools.

It is a matter of great surprise that child protection is hardly ever part of school policies,” said Parveen Shaikh, the head of pre-primary and primary at The Somaiya School, Mumbai.

The participants discussed several child protection issues in schools, including a child’s physical, emotional, personal, social and sexual safety, teacher-student interaction, discipline, identifying and reporting various forms of child abuse, and how schools can be made inclusive for all children, including those with disabilities.

There is a misunderstanding that child protection is only about sexual abuse,” said Father George Athaide, secretary of the Archdiocesan Board of Education. “When we talk about child protection, we need to address issues such as humiliation by teachers or corporal punishment as well.

There is much to be done in the domain of child protection, yet discussions like these can be considered a small but vital start – to share experiences, bring child protection into the collective consciousness and work towards actively being involved with schools to lay down minimum standards for child protection.

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Originally published on Friday, July 24 2015, on dnaindia.com. The author, Samyukta Maindarkar, is the Communications Associate at Aangan.

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On dignity, trust and giving children their voice

Kalpana, right, talking with 3 community members in Wadala, Mumbai.

Kalpana, right, talking with 3 community members in Wadala, Mumbai.

I have worked with children for 25 years now. A lot of it has been with extremely vulnerable children – those living in slums, those from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds, those who have been victims of crimes or have suffered trauma, those who have ended up in shelters and children’s homes. Many of these kids witness and experience far more than any child should, at an age where he or she should be in school and their lives should be free of every worry other than maybe homework.

The right to life with dignity is a fundamental right of Indian citizens, yet dignity is a word often far removed from these children’s lives. For these children, and their families, the struggle to survive in their day-to-day lives is so fraught that quality of life is a distant, dim consideration.

Young girls from such difficult backgrounds are especially vulnerable. When a girl becomes a victim of a crime – of violence, abuse, sexual harassment, rape – the scars are both physical and mental, and are deep. But she seldom has a voice.

When a girl becomes a victim of a serious crime like rape, sexual abuse or trafficking, she is defined by that crime. In society’s eyes, the crime marks her for life, and exposes the fact that she is helpless, weak, female. She is seen as someone who cannot think for herself, who cannot differentiate between right and wrong, who needs to be looked after, locked away for her own good. Her thoughts, feelings and desires are never taken into account. In the process, the right to make a decision about her own life is taken out of the girl’s hands.

At a time when she should be supported, given the confidence to overcome her ordeal, to stand once again, she is instead suppressed. Her dignity and self-respect are both taken away.

This is where the role of an active support person comes in. A support person works with such children to understand their needs, to act on them, and to help them cope with the severe trauma that has occurred in their lives.

When a girl is rescued from a situation of harm and brought to an institution or home, the process for her rehabilitation begins. But because of the horrific ordeal she has undergone, and used to having her feelings and desires ignored, there is no one she trusts anymore. And her process of recovery and rehabilitation can never be complete without learning and understanding what she needs.

At this stage, the support person provides the much needed emotional backing that can help the child – and her family – move on.

The most meaningful thing a support person can do is to listen and understand without hurting or judging the child. To do this, it is necessary to first gain their trust – a fragile commodity – but imperative to respect it.

For a support person, getting justice for a victim of serious harm is extremely important. But the ultimate goal is always to ensure that the child is safe and has the chance to build a good future – as she is entitled to. On her terms.

The author, Kalpana Mistry, is a Child Safety Specialist at Aangan. As told to: Samyukta Maindarkar, Communication and Documentation Associate at Aangan.

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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

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Hope

Hope. On difficult days, I struggle with that word. To make sense of it when I listen to a 15-year old talk about how he thinks of killing himself so that the sound of the power loom he works at night and day will stop reverberating inside him. When Radha says she has nothing to live for anymore, because at 17, she’s already married, has a child, and been abandoned by her husband and family. When Owais, 13, draws himself up to his full height of four and a half feet and declares he’s a man because men work, and he also goes to work.

It’s moments like this that force me to look at whether change is possible, to question what it even looks like. How do you make impossible choices in desperate circumstances? Keep your head above the water?

The first time I met Shabana was a few months ago at a group meeting of adolescent girls in one of the bastis in which we work. She’s 14. The girls were discussing where they feel unsafe, of the walk to the community toilet, the leering and everyday harassment. They were making plans on how to stay safe.

Shabana sat slightly away from the rest, shoulders hunched, not making eye contact. In the two hours I was there, she didn’t utter a word, poised as if to flee by the door. Her silence was telling. Of wanting to be included but not quite fitting in, watching from the periphery.

It was a silence I recognised. Moving from a small island town to Delhi as an 8-year old, it was a silence I’d adopted. A defence against being the outsider, of wanting acceptance, to be seen and heard.

My colleague who works with the girls said that Shabana was new to the group. Till then, her world had been restricted to her house and the gali she lived in. She’d dropped out of school, caring for four younger siblings while her parents went to work.

In her meetings with my colleague, Shabana spoke of wanting to go back to school, but was terrified of her father, of his rages and beatings when he’d come home drunk. To keep the peace, she acquiesced and assumed the role of chief caregiver.

The next time I met Shabana was a month ago. She had started going to school. Surprised, I asked how she had orchestrated it. She responded: ‘I’m not doing anything wrong, so I stopped being afraid. Now I go to afternoon school and look after my siblings in the morning.’ It was a battle fought with quiet determination. ‘I knew that didi was there. In case I needed help, she’d talk to Abbu for me,’ she said.

Then yesterday, I got a call from my colleague. Shabana had heard her friend Asha’s engagement was being arranged and decided she wouldn’t stand for it. She marshalled nine friends to make a case with the girls’ mother, enlisted adult support and together the group persuaded Asha’s mother to cancel the engagement.

The turn of events was incongruous, the image at odds with the girl I had met a few months ago. What had changed? How was this transformation possible?

When I spoke to her later that day, it was a different Shabana from the girl whose voice was once barely above a whisper. This girl had steel in her spine, in her conviction that there was nothing else to do but stop the engagement. ‘When I first heard, I went home and thought about whether I should do anything. I was frightened. But then I felt that just like I was looking out for her, someone else would be there for me,’ she says.

Something has changed. Not in a dramatic bells-and-whistles way, but viscerally. Perhaps it was being able to go to school again, having friends, adults to talk to who’d speak for her – people she could count on to watch her back and prop her up. Maybe it was gaining courage from hearing her own voice, determinedly fighting to be counted by negotiating with her family.

For me, the magic is bearing witness to these everyday, imperceptible changes. To see that it’s the many small somethings that make children safer.

Of being able to hope.

The author, Deepika Khatri, is the Strategy and Advocacy Coordinator at Aangan, an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work, and violence and abuse, to prevent and protect them from harm.

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It Takes a Village

Last month marked 28 years since my mother died. I was 17, she 43. I am now older than she was when she died, a befuddling thought for some reason.

My childhood had seen its fair share of turbulence and my mother had always been my safe harbor. Needless to say, when she died, the bottom fell out of my world. For about ten years after, the anniversary of her death was unbearable to me. I would spend months dreading it and waiting for it to pass. Then time did that thing it does, and for many years now my ritual has been to spend the day of her death in some sort of mindful reflection. She was that sort of mother, encouraging of reflection, so it’s fitting.

On the anniversary of her death this last December, this is what I thought about.

I thought about the day she died and the months (years) after. I thought about how scared I was, how desperately sad and angry, and how meaningless and unfair life had seemed to me. Some days I felt destructive. Some days I felt hopeless. Many days I didn’t feel at all.

And then in my mind’s eye I saw the army of people – my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, extended family and friends – who miraculously appeared around me, then and ever after, with their outstretched arms, their love, their understanding, their unfailing support. As I flailed and raged and retreated and emerged, went up and down and all around and did all the things that hurting young people do, they stood there, unflinching, that army of my supporters.

I thought about what would have happened to me – with all that rage and pain trapped in that me who was yet to become a full person – if I had been left to figure it all out on my own. If all those people had not stood up and held me when my world fell apart.

In my late 20s I worked in the criminal justice system in California writing the social histories of people accused of committing crimes. I had to hear about and write about the lives of desperate people who did desperate things. In and out of the prisons I would go meeting people who had difficult life experiences that oftentimes led to the recklessness that brought them finally to prison. There was much I learnt about life and myself. Most significantly I learnt how easy it is for a person’s life to get completely derailed. And what a profound difference it makes to one’s experience of life and its vicissitudes (and one’s ability to cope, to endure, to overcome), if at an early enough age one has had the assurance of safety, and of having grown up people – the people in charge – stop in their tracks to listen, to care and to protect. And so every time I walked out of a prison and heard the door clanging shut behind me I would silently mutter a prayer of thanks to the universe for giving me the people it did when I was young and falling to pieces. ‘There,’ I would say to myself, ‘but for the grace of my people, might have been I.’

That’s what every kid needs, no? The security that comes from knowing that there are adults in the world who will go to bat for them? Sometimes parents can’t be there, or can’t be that. Horrible life stuff happens to them and willy-nilly they hurt or abandon or neglect or otherwise fail their children. That’s when some other adult has got to step up to the plate.

But in this day and age as families and communities break up, and people have to migrate and relocate and run helter-skelter in search of livelihood, sustenance, opportunities, leaving behind extended family and support systems, who can those adults be?

To answer that, came this goose-bump giving experience:

This last month at Aangan we witnessed the gathering of close to 400 adult women (and some men) who volunteer in our PACT (Parents and Children Against Trafficking and Harm) program as community child protection workers in six cities where we work. They came to talk about how hard children’s lives can be these days, how hard it is for families to manage in isolation, and how vital and necessary their role is as community protection workers – as supporters and champions of children. They talked about how they have linked needy families to government grants and schemes, how they have enrolled children into foster-care programs, how they have supported children to prevent child marriages, to return to school, to get their mid-day meals, to get out of hazardous work, to be seen and to be heard. These are adults who have difficult enough lives of their own, but who know, deep inside them, that it takes a village to raise a child. And they have decided to become that village – and they have stopped in their tracks, and they have listened, and above all else they have cared and protected the children they see around them.

Kinship and community care – I’m a believer!

The author, Atiya Bose, is the director of Aangan, an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work, and violence and abuse, to prevent and protect them from harm.

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Let’s talk about your Spoilt, Selfish and Slightly Dangerous Son

My child is all sunshine, goodness and hope. She is a girl. Your son on the other hand seems to be heading in a dangerous direction. To confirm this, simply turn on the television, read a newspaper or go to a cinema hall near you, as I did recently. Just before the film, a Mumbai policeman appeared larger-than-life on the multiplex screen to reassure girls that city police would keep them safe. This was very comforting. Then in the second part of this public service advertisement, he spoke to your sons and told them that boys were being watched and warned them that police were on the side of girls. This was rather concerning.

The advertisement was not a new one. But it took on special relevance because at the same time as I was doing an internet search, reading about how the police had diligently done a workshop to get their performance right, I also found a news item about another Mumbai police station involved in some of the worst kind of custodial violence—and it involved a child. A boy had been sexually abused in police custody, but we called this victim an adolescent, a minor, a juvenile. Instead of sparking outrage about a harmed child, the story disappeared under a heap of literature and messaging that single-mindedly assumes all boys to be entitled, pampered oppressors or offenders who need no more attention—unless it’s warnings and harsh punishment.

Not for a moment do I believe that India can afford to pause the conversation on girl safety, nor should any debate impinge on victim/survivor rights. Gender work must and will go on. However, it is worrying when we don’t acknowledge that children come in more than one gender and that boys’ safety is also a pressing issue. Dare I argue then that it is equally dangerous to be growing up a boy in this country where rigid definitions of masculinity could be just as oppressive as limitations for girls? Dare I challenge a Nobel Laureate and suggest that it may not be as preferable to be part of the group Amartya Sen calls the preferred sex. Especially considering son-preference has roots in the understanding that boys are assets with potential to earn and this pushes millions of children out of school and into the work force terribly early. Finally may I respectfully disagree with a popular columnist who recently wrote in a Mumbai paper, “From assault to rudeness, murder to misbehavior—it is all allowed because boys will be boys.” Are boys in India really all that privileged?

Ask parents of nine-year-olds (as I did) why they worry that sons spend more time in the library than on the football field, fight too gently, talk too softly or cry too loud. Ask a boy from the exclusive boarding school about the tradition of orientation rituals featuring physical and sexual violence. Ask the child in the slum who is kicked in the gut every time he comes home without earning enough. Ask the boy with the empty stomach bringing himself up because his parent believes that a thirteen year old can care for himself, or ask the one who works in the garbage dump amidst dog bites, disease, injury and beatings. They might tell you that it is incredibly tough growing up a boy and that failure to live up to expected male roles has brutal consequences. Boys will tell you stories about loss, pain, exploitation, coercion, violence – not all that different from girls. And government statistics will back them. A 2007 government survey found that more boys experience physical abuse than girls and when it comes to working children, 92% of those who face violence are boys. Sexual abuse with boys (as with girls) is reported to be staggeringly high in India at 52%, in fact a little higher than 47% in the case of girls. India also has the highest suicide rate in the world, with young boys and men being highly vulnerable as per the latest WHO report.

But the question is whether we will listen to boys and what they need. At the moment, discussion is narrowly focused on two male roles: Future providers—if boys are a potential labor force then all that counts is that they be prepared and skilled to earn. And their other role: Predators-in-waiting who must be neutralized early before they harm women. Undeniably these are important, but once again the child who experiences deep powerlessness or debilitating pressure is buried under the weight of assumptions and expectations.

And what happens when millions of individuals feel silenced, marginalized or brutalized? When daily reality tells them that it is near impossible to be the strong invincible protectors and providers that they are expected to be. Harvard-based medical anthropologist Kimberly Theidon’s work with child soldiers in the Congo and gangs in Latin America connects the combination of society’s expectation and male powerlessness to the expression of “hyper” masculinity—displays of physical strength, violence and aggression as the most important symbols of maleness to establish maleness, something that sounds familiar in the Indian context. But beyond such research, common sense tells us that that ignoring a whole gender cannot possibly be good for boys, girls or any society.

It will be Children’s Day soon and perhaps this would be the right time to celebrate all kinds of children, to reassert that the boy-child (it is telling that we never call him that) needs attention too, just as the girl-child does. It is urgent that media, parents, policy makers, police and public start a new conversation on boys. And to do this it is crucial that we stop questioning boys’ status as children-not just because it is discriminatory (ironic as that may be) but also because it is dangerous. Because denying boys a childhood excludes them from protection that is in fact the right of every child. As for the police, we are of course grateful that they are active about apprehending male perpetrators. But just as much, we need them to be effective and purposeful when it comes to protecting boys and keeping them safe because at least 50,000 boys go missing each year in this county, and 60% remain untraced. Let’s talk more about protection for boys because all children, regardless of gender have a right to be safe. Every day. Everywhere.

The author, Suparna Gupta, is the founder of Aangan, an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work, violence and abuse. She is an Ashoka fellow and a Ford Mason fellow from Harvard Kennedy School

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