David versus Goliath

By Alexandra Birladianu, Senior Manager Communications Aangan Trust / LGT Venture Philanthropy ICats Fellow

On the 4th of November I went for the second time to the Govandi slum in Mumbai. Govandi is situated next to one of the biggest and oldest garbage dumping grounds in Mumbai. Daily, heavy trucks bring garbage, contributing to the traffic and pollution in the area.

The wall  – Photo taken by the girls

Because of its status as an illegal slum, the population has no access to key services. There is a heavy presence of local gangs and mafia. Violence is normalized.

The slum comprises a migrant population of approximately 3,000 households consisting of 18,000 people. The key livelihood option is working at the dumping ground, with families having children as young as 7 and 8 years old starting to work there; “zari” work and catering are other industries present in the area.

I think subconsciously I have avoided Govandi. The first time I went there I felt really sick for a few days after. After this visit I got rashes on my arms and fever. I think that the fumes from the huge garbage dump in the vicinity of the community combined with the Mumbai heat made me sick. And people live here. 18,000 men, women and children live in Govandi every day, a lot of them working at the dumping ground.

But my visit was a happy one. I was excited to be there, meeting 10 adolescent girls for a photography workshop. I had my iPhone and two digital cameras with me; and tips and tricks on how to take compelling photographs. Our mission was very important! Map the unsafe areas in the community, take photos and prepare for an exhibition where the local police was invited. The girls would show them the unsafe areas in the community and set a common plan of action. Because they want to go outside and play! Because they want to walk safely to school! Because they want to use the one toilet in the community without fear of sexual assault and harassment!

We talked for an hour about what makes a good photo, about using natural light, framing, breaking patterns, natural lines, focus and all the other things I could think to share from my experience as an amateur photographer. The most important advice though was to stay safe and try to have fun.

Community – Photo taken by the girls

People in Govandi don’t like to be photographed and it is “forbidden” to take any photos close to the garbage dump. The girls had to be very careful. It was glaringly obvious that I was a foreigner so our mission wasn’t easy. I sneaked a few photos with my phone while my Shakti girls walked boldly to places that scare them at night, in the evenings and every time they have to walk by them. Together they took around 400 photographs. We walked from more than an hour around the community.

I witnessed child labour, pollution, sexual harassment, thinking all the time that child protection is a David versus Goliath battle. There was nothing I could do immediately to stop the child I saw doing “zari” work but I knew Aangan through its Shakti, Chauraha and PACT programs is fighting a big battle every day to make a difference, stop child labour, child marriage, trafficking, harm and abuse. It is a long hard fight!

The dumping ground – Photo taken by the girls

When I got home and started going through all the photographs I got even more excited. My girls paid a lot of attention during the workshop and they are extremely talented. It was hard to just choose 20 photos. But we did it, together with Deepika, our Strategy and Advocacy Coordinator, Nishaat, our Program Associate and Divya, our National Coordinator. After minor editing the photos were ready for print.

The exhibition took place the following Sunday. Still sick, I could not attend. My colleagues told me about its impact. The girls talked with the police officers, parents and other members of their community, showcased their work and explained why those specific areas are unsafe. They talked about how their life is affected, how it makes it difficult for them to attend school, play, walk around, go to the store or use the toilet. And everyone listened. In a community deeply affected by sexism, everyone listened to the 10 adolescent girls who took action.

Now they have a connection with the police, they are not afraid to approach them with their issues or complaints. Hopefully they will feel safer in Govandi, go to school and live a normal life.

Working on the ground with Aangan has been the highlight of my fellowship. Women and girls empowerment in India has many faces and Aangan is doing a wonderful work fighting this battle.

My Shakti Girls

This post was originally published on November 19th on the LGT Venture Philanthropy ICats Blog.

About Aangan:

Aangan is a child protection organization that promotes safe communities for children with a focus on children in dangerous or difficult situations and environments. These are children imperiled by their exposure or vulnerability to isolation, neglect, violence, hazardous or exploitative work, early marriage, juvenile offending, trafficking and abuse. We enable safe communities where children, adults and governments work together to prevent and respond to the harm that these children face.

Follow Aangan on Twitter and Facebook for daily updates, regular people child protection stories, and more.

About Alexandra:

I am an ICats  Fellow with the Aangan Trust in Mumbai, India. As part of LGT Venture Philanthropy‘s support to scale proven local solutions, the ICats Program was established to provide additional know-how to social organizations. The program connects social organizations in need of professional know-how, and experts with the desire to apply their knowledge in a meaningful way, thus acting as “Impact Catalysts”.


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.

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.

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.

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