By Anne Lynam Goddard, ChildFund President and CEO
India is like no other place. It is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and is developing rapidly. Yet at the same time the gap between the haves and have nots continues to grow. There are more hungry children in India than in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly half of the world’s malnourished children live in India. And 7 percent of children do not live to celebrate their 5th birthday.
This week, I’m in India visiting our programs. We visit a gypsy community in Chennai. Mothers are excited to tell me how ChildFund has helped them. I’m particularly struck by Kumari, a 25-year-old mother. Bright eyed, she tells me, “ChildFund set up mothers’ clubs. We meet regularly to learn about immunization for our children, breastfeeding, preparing nutritious meals, registering births and personal hygiene.”
Kumari is happy to be raising a healthy son, Santosh. “I’m raising my child differently to how I was raised”, she adds. Kumari is proud of how far she has come and invites me to visit her home. Basic and dark inside, it is spacious and there is an old black and white TV, although not much else.
This gypsy community mainly lives from collecting scrap materials such as metal and paper at communal dumps and selling them. Marginalized, they are an often neglected group in society. No other organization provides assistance to them. ChildFund’s local partner came to know of them when working in a neighboring area.
One day a child came to beg for food. The next day, more children came. The local partner then started looking into the local area and found out there was a gypsy community living on its doorstep. The needs were great, but eight years later the project is going strong and providing key interventions in health, education and livelihood.
Kumari tells me: “Of course, life is still hard. We are fighting with the local authorities for permanent land titles. We still have no drainage, no drinking water and no proper roads. People don’t even look at us. But our community is starting to ask why we can’t move up in life. We want things to change. We want our children to dream of becoming doctors and teachers.”
Also in Chennai is the Adi Dravida Welfare Primary School, where ChildFund provides school materials and raises awareness among parents about the importance of education. We are helping children who are slow learners catch up with other children by providing more trained teachers, organizing remedial classes before and after school and using audio-visual aides for reading and writing. On the wall I notice a poster helping children count one to ten. I was expecting “1 cow”, “2 ducks”, “3 horses”, but the poster reads: “1 computer”, “2 TVs”, 3 “cell phones”…. Another sign of India’s rapid development.
I meet Chandrika, a mother of two. I ask her what improvements she has seen. She tells me, “My daughter has been attending both morning and afternoon classes for the past two years. The teacher, Nithya, provides individual attention to her. She takes time to explain things. Previously my daughter was lagging behind other children. Her grades have now improved and she can compete with other children. I want her to attend secondary school.” Chandrika herself only has a primary education and it is heartwarming that she recognizes the value of going to school.
Children are attending Adi Dravida Welfare Primary School more than ever. The school has new toilets and a well providing drinking water. What I like about the program is that while we are providing quality education to all children, we also have programs tailored to children of different abilities, where we focus on the individual. This is an intrinsic quality of ChildFund programs.
And yet barriers remain. Most children in this school are Dalits, belonging to scheduled castes. Essentially they are outcasts and looked down upon by other segments of Indian society. The challenge is to ensure they can progress to secondary school. At the moment they face severe discrimination in secondary school, which inevitably leads to dropping out, where they sit separately and do not interact with other children.
In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, not far from the Taj Mahal, is the city of Firozabad. Known for its glass industry, Firozabad is the world capital for glass beads and bangles. It is also a major center for child labor. Rajeev started working there full-time in the bangle industry when he was 5 years old. He would wake up at 4 a.m. and work all day. He didn’t go to school and never thought he would.
He told me, “I didn’t enjoy working. I was often tired. I would breathe in harmful kerosene fumes all day and apply toxic chemical on bangles. I was paid 35-cents per hour.” I take a look at his hands. Those are not the hands of a 13-year-old. They are the hands of an old man.
ChildFund works in Firozabad to protect children from exploitation by raising awareness of children’s rights. To date, 1,500 children have been “rescued”. Now 13, Rajeev is going to school, although he still works one hour in the morning before school and one hour after school. He is happy to go to school and wants to become a teacher.
This year ChildFund celebrates its 60th anniversary in India. We have a long and proud history in the country, and Rajeev is one of our successes.