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Lighting Up the Future of Children in India


ChildFund India distributed solar-powered lanterns to children. Here, Aarathi reads by its light.

By Rashmi Kulkarni, ChildFund India

In parts of India, literacy rates are very low for a variety of reasons. One problem is a lack of electricity. When you are in the dark at home, it’s not easy to read.

In June, ChildFund India distributed nearly 40,000 solar-powered lamps to children in homes without electricity, as phase two of a national literacy campaign called Books, My Friends. In December 2014, our India staff members, with the help of local partner organizations and others, distributed 40,000 tote bags full of age-appropriate books in several languages. About 115,000 children have benefited from the program, which aims to make reading fun and also help them improve their literacy skills.

According to India’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for 2014, many children are behind grade level in their reading skills. Among eighth-graders, about 75 percent can read at second-grade level, and 32.5 percent of second-graders can’t even recognize letters.

We used to use wax or kerosene candles. With the slightest blow of wind, the candles would go out.

In this campaign phase, called Toward a Brighter Future, children have received solar-powered lamps that allow them to read, do homework or other activities after the sun goes down.

“For me, my education is very important,” says Aarathi, who got a lamp. “I don’t like missing school even for a single day. Now that I have my own solar lamp, I can study anytime and anywhere. It’s so convenient and easy to use these solar lamps. We also use these lamps for doing group studies outside our houses.”

Although the lamps’ primary purpose is to help children study after dark, they also make it easier for family members to do household chores. “Earlier we used to use wax or kerosene candles,” recalls Jayamma. “With the slightest blow of wind, the candles would go out. We also used to feel hot while using them. Having a solar lamp is great. We don’t face any of those problems with this. My mother finds it very convenient to cook using this lamp.”

And for some, the solar lamp has a totally different benefit. “Now we can also play after dark outside our houses using these lamps,” say Prathibha and Swathi.

After the successful implementation of this second phase, ChildFund India plans to open two solar-powered model schools, more than 100 libraries in rural schools in 14 states and introduce mobile libraries, which will provide access to high-quality reading material and dedicated reading space for children and other community members.

Sonam’s Fight Against Child Marriage

By ChildFund India staff

Oct. 11 is the International Day of the Girl Child, a day set aside by the United Nations to recognize girls’ rights and the special challenges they face. This year’s theme for the day is The Power of the Adolescent Girl: Vision for 2030, so ChildFund’s blog will focus this week on girls who are working to achieve great things now and in the future.

Sonam, 17, a child marriage activist from Madhya Pradesh, India, accepts an award.

Sonam, 17, a child marriage activist from Madhya Pradesh, India, accepts an award.

In India, the country with the most child brides worldwide, an estimated 47 percent of girls are married before age 18, putting their physical, emotional and mental health at risk. Although it is illegal in India for girls under 18 and boys under 21 to marry, the tradition remains entrenched.

For a long time, ChildFund has worked with adults and youth in the state of Madhya Pradesh, where the practice is particularly prevalent, to end this harmful tradition. For many in this fight, the stakes are personal.

When 17-year-old Sonam’s parents insisted that she get married, she protested, and together with her youth club members who had taken an oath to become role models for others by not becoming the victims of early marriage, she spoke with her parents. She shared that she did not want to get married before reaching the legal age and also wanted to study further to achieve her dreams.

At the launch of a 100-day child marriage awareness campaign in 75 villages earlier this year, Sonam was recognized for addressing the issue of early marriage and for standing up against her own marriage. Anmol Jeevan, the campaign, drew great support from the community, including village leaders and parents. Thousands of people attended the event where Sonam and other youth members received awards.

“ChildFund has changed my life — it came as a ray of hope in my life and has given me courage to dream about my future,” she said while accepting the award.

Sonam (left) at a literacy campaign event.

Sonam (left) at a literacy campaign event.

Sonam has been with ChildFund India since the beginning of the project, for more than six years.  She has actively participated in several of ChildFund’s programs, awareness camps and meetings on early marriage. She also encourages mothers to get their children immunized and provide nutritious food. She also has promoted literacy in her village by doing door-to-door counseling and getting children of her village enrolled in school. With Sonam’s and her youth club members’ persistent efforts, more than 62 community members have learned to read — out of the 142 illiterate village members they had identified.

After a lot of persuasion, Sonam’s parents were convinced that she should remain unmarried. With their support, she is now preparing for exams, with plans to become an engineer and help her village.

“If convinced properly,” says Sonam, “parents will support their daughters’ wishes to study instead of getting them married at an early age.”

And when they do, those girls will be able to make enormous contributions within their own communities — as Sonam has.

Playing With What They Have

Photos from ChildFund’s offices in Bolivia, Brazil, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Mexico and Timor-Leste 

In the lobby of ChildFund’s international headquarters, we don’t have your typical office décor. Instead, we have a sparsely furnished Kenyan classroom, a world map mural with paper dolls holding hands, and homemade toys collected from around the world. A lot of the toys are made with what some people might call trash: used plastic bottles, twine and bits of rubber and metal. But the toys themselves are not junk and are often prized by the children who made and played with them.

In these pictures below, you’ll see the ingenuity and creativity of children who play with what they have — animals, traditional games and toys made from available materials.

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Raimani’s Dream Bike

By Rashmi Kulkarni, ChildFund India

Raimani and her Dream Bike.

Raimani and her Dream Bike.

Raimani lives with her family in Tangiri, a small village in India. She has three sisters and one brother, and is in the 8th grade. Not long ago, she wasn’t sure if she would be able to keep going to school. She used to walk more than four miles every day to get to class, often alone, which wasn’t very safe. Sometimes she was late, or she just didn’t make it to school at all. Her grades suffered, and, because her parents couldn’t afford transportation for her, she considered dropping out altogether.

But thanks to ChildFund’s Dream Bike program, things have improved for Raimani. Now, she regularly attends school, arriving on time and with plenty of energy, and her performance has dramatically improved. She no longer has to walk to school, which allows her time to invest in her studies. Her siblings are also attending school more regularly because Raimani gives them rides on her bike, too. Having a bike also enables Raimani to participate in club meetings and other events organized by ChildFund and our local partner organization in Tangiri.

“I am very happy my daughter received a bicycle,” Raimani’s mother says. “It has turned out to be very useful as my other children can also use it to go to school. The gift of a bicycle has ensured that Raimani can continue her education. We are very thankful to ChildFund.”

If you would like to make a girl’s dream of an education come true, consider giving the gift of a Dream Bike today.


Creating New Readers in India

RS29421_pooja 2

Pooja (in white wrap) discusses books from ChildFund with her friends in a village in India’s state of Andhra Pradesh.

By Rashmi Kulkarni, ChildFund India

Five months after the launch of ChildFund India’s Books, My Friends campaign, we’re learning more about the children who are getting their first chance to own books and read for pleasure.

This spring, ChildFund India and its campaign partner, Macmillan Education, conducted a baseline assessment of 1,200 children across 15 Indian states, to understand their reading abilities. About 40,000 children have received books and bags since December through the Books, My Friends program.

Pooja with her books.

Pooja with her books.

The analysis showed that reading ability improved with age, although far too many children still can’t read. In the group of 6- to 8-year-olds tested, 66.2 percent were not able to read at all, while 44.8 percent of 11- and 12-year-olds and 29 percent of 13- and 14-year-olds were illiterate. Geography mattered as well, with higher literacy rates in the states of Delhi, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, while Rajasthan, Jharkand and Chhattisgarh had lower rates.

Pooja, 14, who lives in a village in Andhra Pradesh, was able to read at the level of an 8- or 9-year-old when she received her books in December.

“I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to read these books,” she says. Also, most of her time was spent in studying her textbooks or attending classes, so Pooja preferred to get away from books during her leisure time.

But because some of the books she received were in her local language, Telugu, they piqued her interest. Soon, she was enjoying them, and she moved on to the other books in her bag, which were in English. That presented an obstacle, since English is harder for Pooja to read.

With a smile on her face, Pooja says, “My school coordinator has helped me a lot in improving my English reading ability. She would patiently sit with me, make me read these story books and correct me whenever I went wrong. And as soon as I started understanding the stories, I started enjoying them and wanted to read more.”

As a result, Pooja has joined a group of other students who discuss their books.

“This campaign has really helped me make new friends,” she says. “All the students who have received these books have formed a group, and during weekends, all of us sit together to read these books and enjoy chatting with each other. The illustrations in these books make the reading all more interesting. I’m really grateful to ChildFund for giving me these books. Because of this campaign, I’ve made this extra effort to read, and today I can read an entire sentence in English without faltering.”

Reading is an important source of knowledge, happiness, pleasure and even courage. It opens your mind and transports you virtually into newer worlds. It develops your brain and helps in communicating and sharing ideas, and therefore is essential for advancement and development of any society.

Read Rashmi Kulkarni’s first story about Books, My Friends.

Indian Students Ignite Their Imaginations

books, my friends

Children in Kotra, India, receive books and reading bags as part of ChildFund India’s Books, My Friends program. Photo by Jake Lyell.

By Rashmi Kulkarni, ChildFund India

Last December, ChildFund India launched a nationwide campaign called Books, My Friends to provide bags full of age-appropriate books for 115,000 children ages 6 to 14 across India. The goal of the project is to make reading fun for children while helping them improve their reading, comprehension and learning abilities. We hope to create a love of reading that continues through adulthood.

In India, we work with children who live in rural villages and urban slums, and lack of education is a big concern everywhere. Many children living in poverty can’t read at grade level and often don’t have access to books at home. In rural communities, children are often limited to textbooks printed on poor-quality paper. Many parents are barely literate, so a culture of reading has not yet taken hold. Without strong reading comprehension, children can’t excel in school.

To address this situation, ChildFund India started the Reading Improvement Program, our flagship education initiative, and the Books, My Friends campaign, which encourages students to read for pleasure.


Shreelakshmi, reading.

Shreelakshmi, a seventh-grader from the southwestern state of Karnataka, received a reading bag in December during the launch of Books, My Friends. She had a chance to meet Anil Kumble, a world-renowned cricket captain and major sports celebrity in India.

Shreelakshmi recalls the meeting fondly: “The experience of receiving books from Anil Kumble is still fresh in my mind. He and the ChildFund team spoke with us freely and inspired us to read more books. I am very grateful to ChildFund for giving me this opportunity,” she says, a smile spreading across her face.

Shreelakshmi received 17 books, and she’s already read many of them. Her favorite was Kadhakalu Maha Nagara, about a girl who had no one to read a story to her. Finally, she finds one person who starts telling stories to her daily. Slowly, other children start joining her to listen.

“I, too, like stories, and my brother also sometimes reads them to me,” Shreelakshmi says.

Since most of her neighborhood friends also have received reading bags, they enjoy reading and discussing books together.

Parents say it’s great for their children to have something constructive to do with their time, and Shreelakshmi’s teacher adds that the habit of reading appears to be taking hold, just a few months into the project.

Watch this space for another story soon about Books, My Friends and the Reading Improvement Program. 

ROAR Go the Lions and Tigers

India Early Childhood Development

Ashok demonstrates a tiger’s roar in his ECD center in the Raigad district of India’s Maharashtra state.

By Saroj Pattnaik for ChildFund India

Pictures often communicate information more efficiently than words do (hence the famous adage), and that holds true in a small classroom in western India, where children are discovering the alphabet, animals, fruits and vegetables through paintings and pictures.

“Earlier, I could not tell the difference between a cabbage and a cauliflower. Now, I know all the fruits and vegetables that we eat,” says 4-year-old Vaishnavi, one of the 30 children enrolled in an Early Childhood Development (ECD) center in the Raigad district of Maharashtra state, where ChildFund works in 43 rural villages. “Cauliflower is my favorite vegetable, and it contains many vitamins,” she adds.

Vaishnavi’s best friend, Ashok, is more interested in animals, particularly lions. He explains that the lion is the king of the jungle. “You know, a lion won’t kill other animals if it is not hungry,” the preschooler says, recalling a story that his teacher told them the other day.

Shanta Ghatge, a tutor, leads children in acting out a story at an Indian ECD center.

Shanta Ghatge, a tutor, leads children in acting out a story at an Indian ECD center.

According to Dr. Virendra Kulkarni, program manager of PRIDE India, ChildFund’s local partner organization in this area, young children explore visual art with both a creative and a scientific eye.

“Through art, they not only identify objects and concepts clearly, they try to explore everything related to them,” he explains. “Wall paintings are one of the best ways to make children know many things through visual expression. Our role is to provide them with materials and inspiration, then to stand back and let them go.”

Shanta Ghatge, a tutor at the ECD center, agrees: “Wall paintings, posters and other wall decorations not only make the classrooms look great, but they also make learning easy for children and remind them of concepts.

“We cannot just talk all the time in class,” she adds. “Children need to be stimulated in their learning, and we need such wall paintings, posters and other teaching aids to make their learning interesting.”

Ghatge, who has been an ECD teacher in the area for more than 20 years, says she follows a curriculum adopted by ChildFund to teach the preschoolers, and their routine includes examining paintings, writing, singing, storytelling, drawing and painting.

“Although the children like almost all the activities, the most favorite for them has been creating their own art,” Ghatge says. “I often give out drawing sheets and watercolors to them and ask them to make some art. They just love this activity.”

Children need to be stimulated in their learning, and we need such wall paintings, posters and other teaching aids to make their learning interesting.

Research has shown that participating in art, music and storytelling activities helps children develop language, mathematics and social skills. “These essential activities can help the young brain develop to its fullest capacity,” Dr. Kulkarni says. “In all our ECD centers, we use learning methods that are recognized as best practices for preschoolers.

“One of them is using rhythm to help children develop patterning abilities and make relationships between the rhythm, beat and words,” he explains. “There are a lot of local language rhymes that teachers use to improve children’s patterning ability, while toys and other aids are used to improve their motor skills.”

Ghatge points out that the children also have fun in the classroom. “Amidst all this noise, we certainly know one thing: These children are learning while enjoying their childhoods.”

Mamta’s Path to Becoming a Teacher

In this video, Mamta talks about how the Udaan scholarship available through ChildFund India has helped her overcome financial challenges to attend university to become a teacher. Her parents are illiterate, and many of her friends in her village dropped out to get married, so what she is doing is remarkable.

“I want to teach other girls to continue their educations so they’ll be independent, like me, and have a good life,” Mamta says. Video by Jake Lyell.


Indian Cricket Captain Makes a Pitch for Reading

India book bagsChildren in Karnataka, India, receive book bags from ChildFund filled with age-appropriate — and fun — books to encourage reading for enjoyment. Photo by Jake Lyell.

Reporting by ChildFund India

Last month, former Indian cricket team captain Anil Kumble helped launch a reading campaign with ChildFund India, presenting tote bags filled with books to children in Karnataka, a state in southwestern India. Each bag contained books appropriate for different ages, from 6 to 14, and the program aims to provide books to nearly 115,000 underserved students in 14 Indian states this year, with more to come in the next three years. ChildFund India also has plans to set up 30 community libraries throughout the country.

“If you want to get more knowledge, it is important to read books,” Kumble said. “A culture of reading picked up at this age will continue forever.” The campaign focuses on providing access to literature, creating a supportive environment and removing barriers to reading. To address poor electricity in rural areas, families will receive solar-powered lamps with chargers that can also be used for cell phones and flashlights.

By giving children the opportunity to own books other than school textbooks, it is hoped the “Books, My Friends” program will inspire them to become lifelong readers for fun and enjoyment.

Learning From the Fear and Misery of the Tsunami

Indian Ocean tsunami survivor

K. Rathnavel: “We are simple human beings, not gods. You might escape from the place of nature’s fury, but you cannot control it.”

To mark the 10th anniversary of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, we asked our staff members in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia to collect stories from survivors. 

By Saroj Kumar Pattnaik, ChildFund India

Bursts of rain and wind punctuate an otherwise pleasant day in India’s Nagapattinum district. The streets are quiet in the village of Sampathottam, and it’s time for lunch. The scent of a dry fish curry wafts through the air. Govindaraj, though, is impatient and waiting for the rain to stop.

“I don’t like this rain, like the way I hate the sea,” he says, visibly irritated. “Since the morning, I am waiting for this rain to stop. I will get the flowers from the market. Every year, I offer these flowers to my parents on their anniversary.” This isn’t a happy anniversary, though. It’s the 10th anniversary of his parents’ death and the Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed 230,000 lives in South Asia.

Govindaraj lost his parents, his elder brother and 10 other members of his family in the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 7,000 people in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu alone. He dusts off the photographs of his lost relatives.

tsunami survivors

Govindaraj and Malakodi, their daughters and his cousin, Anita (center), who lost her parents.

“She is my mother, he is my father, and the other one is my elder brother,” he says, pointing to the pictures. “They were among the 13 of my family members who became prey to that devastating tsunami and left me alone to die, every day remembering them. Anita is also an unfortunate child like me.”

Thirteen-year-old Anita is Govindaraj’s cousin, who also lost her parents in the tsunami and is now being taken care of by Govindaraj and his wife Malakodi.

“I am lucky to have survived nature’s fury,” Govindaraj says. “Actually, I was at my uncle’s place where my wife and Anita were, when that killer tsunami hit our village. It destroyed everything, killed my entire family and that of Anita’s,” he says, turning his face toward the door to hide his tears.

Comforting him in her arms, Malakodi says,“It’s God’s decision. What can we do?

“We were fortunate enough that our village, Perumalpettai, is located a bit higher than the other villages. The tsunami water did come to our village but did not sweep us along. We survived. Only those who were near the shore at that time were killed or have gone missing,” she says.

When asked what she remembers about that day, Anita says, “I cannot recall anything about what happened on that day and how the tsunami was. The only thing I know is that it killed my parents and deprived me from the fortune of having parents. “

“I have only photographs of my parents. I miss them the most when people talk about them and about the tsunami,” she says, pointing at their pictures.

Indian Ocean tsunami survivor

Now 13, Amrith survived the tsunami.

Elsewhere in the village, Mahesh and her husband Ashoghan and son Amrith survived the tsunami, but they were forever touched by the trauma of the day. A pregnant Mahesh was slammed into walls by the waves, and later she and her husband were confronted with scores of dead bodies while searching for their 3-year-old son in a shelter. They found him in a corner, alive but unable or unwilling to speak.

“It was a horrible situation out there,” Ashoghan recalls. “We decided to move to another place, as the atmosphere was affecting both our body and soul, especially my son, who had not spoken a word since we found him. We crossed a backwater river stretch and moved out of the village and walked throughout the night to reach a nearby town.”

Amrith, now 13, is sponsored through ChildFund and attends school. After the tsunami, he was able to spend time in a Child-Centered Space to help recover from the trauma. But the family still suffers hardship. Amrith’s younger sister, Joyse, who was born a couple of months after the tsunami, has a nerve disorder that has prevented her from forming words or walking. She receives treatment for her condition, which is paid for by the government, her father says.

Near Govindaraj’s home, K. Rathnavel, a leader of this community, is busy preparing for a commemoration event for the victims of the tsunami.

In between phone calls to other community members, he says, “I want to build a memorial dedicated to the people who lost their lives in the tsunami. I have yet to raise the required funds for it.

“But I am sure we will soon be able to erect a memorial in our village,” he adds confidently.

When asked to tell his tsunami story, Rathnavel’s confidence disappears.

“Whenever I see the ocean, I get reminded of how it took away hundreds of our fellow villagers – men, women and children alike,” he says. Most who survived have become so scared of the sea that they have given up fishing, the ages-old occupation of the village, Rathnavel says.

A 2005 photo at a Child-Centered Space in India after the tsunami.

A 2005 photo at a Child-Centered Space in India.

“Most of us live in these houses allotted to us by the government as part of their rehabilitation plan for tsunami-affected people,” he adds. “Our old place has now turned into a ghost village.

“We are simple human beings, not gods. You might escape from the place of nature’s fury, but you cannot control it. Now, we don’t take a chance. If there is any alert from the authorities, we simple abide and stay away from the sea.”

According to K. Krishna Kumar of the AVVAI Village Welfare Society, ChildFund India’s local partner in Nagapattinam district, “The 2004 tsunami taught us that resilience is the key to recover from difficulties and to bounce back. People in this region have seen unprecedented devastation and lost numerable lives but are now moving on. That’s life, and we tell the affected communities to be strong and look forward.”

“Today, a decade later, the important question before us is how prepared we are for another such disaster,” he asks. “The disaster forced the development sector to focus on resilience in their programming efforts. As the largest NGO in this region, we played a coordinating role in the post-tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction process in partnership with various funding agencies and governments,” he continues.

Part of ChildFund’s response to the disaster, carried out through local partners like AVVAI Village, was to build Child-Centered Spaces to help children recover from trauma in safe places. In this district, we and our partners also started a program to help people find other sources of income after losing their livelihoods.

“The tsunami should be remembered as a history of setbacks and tears,” Kumar says. “But the motivation to go forward must be harnessed.”

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