When we founded our organisation 3 years ago we were driven utterly by love. Love for India, love for our partners CARE Foundation and most of all an unconditional love for the children we had just spent 6 months volunteering to help.
Agreeing to support CARE Foundation deliver education and welfare for the children of the Londor community was a responsibility we were more than willing to accept.
We started boldly. Taking on the task of organising the finances of both organisations and setting about creating some stability for both CARE Foundation and the children in our care.
Our one aim was to get these kids into school. Education, we thought, was the key to solving the poverty and danger that these young people faced. If they could only access education they would have the necessary tools to find employment when they grew up and would not have to go back to begging.
However, we learnt the hard way that we had assumed too much and things weren’t going to be so simple.
We slowly began noticing problems. The children’s reading and writing didn’t seem to be improving at the rate we thought it would and we would scratch our heads at the surprisingly small amount of homework they seemed to be getting. We were joyously waving them off at the school gate each morning and picking them up at the end of the day too… so what was going on in the hours in between?!
One day we followed where they went after we dropped them off. To our horror and surprise we saw them leave their bags at the school gate and instead of going into the classroom they walked to the city in order to beg.
It was hard to understand why such young children would choose to spend a day begging on the streets rather than studying in school – we had assumed that offering these children access to education would be enough to ensure they went. We hadn’t considered that the practice of begging was deeply entrenched. When a child of 8 years old has spent every day of their life on the doorstep to a temple asking for money from strangers, they don’t see anything wrong. Begging is the norm. They are not aware that they are missing out on anything.
When we took the time to speak with the children we found out their parents, despite their consent in our programme, were still pressuring their children to earn money. And with this money they would buy alcohol to feed their addictions.
We also learnt that some teachers in school would beat the children, classrooms were overcrowded and children weren’t given the attention they needed to have things explained to them so that they understood.
Hearing this we decided to change our approach and send the children to a different school. The school they now attend is a private school, which provides high quality education and can focus attention on the individual needs of the children. The teachers there don’t use beatings for discipline and we were able to ensure the kids we dropped off each morning were also attending classes. The children started to enjoy school and wanted to be in class more than they wanted to be begging.
Still, every now and then, just as we thought things were working well, we would experience a slip up. Once a slip up so tragic it would force us to redress our approach once more.
One of the most upsetting failures in our history is the story of Selvi.
Selvi started off with us as a girl of 9, we would take her to school each day and pick her up each evening. To our knowledge she was doing great.
But when Selvi was 13 years old and still attending school each day she was suddenly married off to an older man. Although not legal in India, child marriage is still recognised by the Londor people (the community we work in) meaning that, to all intents and purposes, it is a binding agreement. Once a marriage takes place it’s almost impossible to void and, regardless of the law, still stands in the eyes of the community.
Consequently Selvi left school and had her first child when she was just 14.
We were forced to face up to the fact that we had failed Selvi. We had failed to protect her, failed to end her dependence upon begging and failed to empower her to stand up for herself.
Even though we spoke to Selvi each day we still did not know what she was going through. She was ashamed to be getting married to an older man. She was loyal to her parents and she carried the burden of their poverty and their desire for the money her dowry would bring - just $50.
This happened because we had also failed to recognise that no matter what opportunities we offered these children they remained loyal to their parents and community. We had been so totally focussed on working with the children and enabling them to read and write we had forgotten to pay attention to the traditions and culture which run deep in the Londor people. We had thought that we could end a centuries old practice with one group of children.
Well, we do still aim to do break the cycle of poverty present in this community within one generation but we know now that we must involve more than just the children if we are going to succeed.
Selvi’s lesson was a hard one for us to learn but we wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Together with CARE Foundation we have made a concerted effort to develop close and trusting relationships with the parents of all our children. It’s vitally important to us that they also see the value in their child going to school. Rather than enforcing a new way of life upon them, we want the whole community to know and feel that we are working alongside them to bring positive change.
By creating stronger relationships with parents we build trust. They listen to us when we explain the long term benefits of skills, training and education over the incredibly short term benefits of a child’s dowry or the small amount they earn on the street.
We have seen a change in the attitudes of the parents. They help get their kids ready in the morning (our social workers have helped teach parents how to do this) and the children are ready with their school bags and smiles when we pick them up each day.
Parents give a helpful and friendly ‘push’ to their children if they don’t want to go to school (they’re still kids, after all!) and together we work on increasing the life chances for the children of Londor.
There is a very well known proverb that says ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’. Our biggest failure taught us exactly this:
Alone, we cannot change the future for these 83 children but by working together, within and for their community, we will achieve the positive impact we desire.