Talking to Youth: What Is Your Greatest Challenge?

by Jason Schwartzman, ChildFund Team Leader for Child & Youth Involvement

My visit to ChildFund programs in the state of Orissa continues with more opportunities to talk with youth about the challenges they face and the options they have.

I eventually come around to asking my core question, “If you and a group of your friends had to choose one issue that is the greatest challenge to youth in this area, what would you choose?”

It’s interesting because there is wide consensus — it’s not too difficult for them to come to an agreement. For young women, its migration to find work, and for young men, the issue of migration is there, but they focus more on alcoholism. Young women in rural villages have a profound sense of Youth in Indiavulnerability that comes with migrating to the major towns and cities. Without the support of their extended family, friends and community, the chances of abuse are high. And even for those who don’t migrate and stay at home, many bear the additional burden of maintaining the household in the absence of an older sibling or parent who has left. More responsibilities at home often pull them out of school, narrowing the choices and options they have in their lives. This is what they talk about.

While young men talk about the risks of migrating for work, and they have heard all the horror stories about exploitation, such as being penniless and in a strange city or being arrested by the police for vagrancy — they tell these stories to me — their feeling of vulnerability after leaving home is not as profound as with young women.

Instead, alcoholism is the issue top of mind for these young men. Drinking is a widespread problem in their community as is the social violence that often comes with it. When fathers and mothers are drunk, their children find themselves struggling to cope with a mix of emotions and fears. They’re also deeply concerned about their peers who drink too much. Young people are making choices, sometimes passively and sometimes actively, but they are acutely aware that these choices are not leaving them in a good place.

They candidly talk about feeling unconfident because they have not taken advantage of education, and now they feel ill prepared to earn a livelihood.

I thank them for their frankness. They ask to sing a song to close our meeting. They sing three.

Talking with Youth in India’s Remote Communities

by Jason Schwartzman, ChildFund Team Leader for Child & Youth Involvement

Cattle on road photoI have traveled from New Delhi up to the state of Orissa to talk with youth about the situation of their community and their lives. We sit in small rooms on carpets, shoes off and in bare feet. I learn a lot.

Literacy rates are low here —47 percent of men and only 24 percent of women are literate. Women die during childbirth at extremely high rates, and a major reason is that women marry at an early age (mid-teens), when they are at higher risk of childbirth complications.

Schools don’t function well so the quality of education is poor. Because families don’t value education, they don’t support their children in their studies or make sure they stay in school. Eventually, young men and young women leave the village for larger towns, in search of work. Women are more vulnerable to risks outside their home community. Those risks include sexual violence and marriage that moves them to distant and sometimes hostile communities where their life choices and options often deteriorate. Young men find themselves working but not getting paid. When they realize they are being exploited, they are without the money they need to return home.

The challenges are great, and the options are few. This is what young people tell me.

Tomorrow, my talks with youth continue.

Challenges and Opportunities for India’s Youth

by Jason Schwartzman, ChildFund Team Leader for Child & Youth Involvement

ChildFund Youth summit in IndiaThis is not such a great photo, but facing the camera are members of the group of youth we met with in India. They are presenting on the challenges they face and the opportunities they need following an exercise where we placed flip chart pages up on a large expanse of wall, about 8 feet wide and 4 feet high.

Youth map issuesMoving from left to right, we marked the childhood to young adult years, with age 10 at the extreme left and age 25 at the extreme right. We then asked the youth to map out how the challenges and opportunities evolve over that age span. Here’s a partial view of what it looked like.

What we saw were shifts in the issues with age — as we’d expect. Closer to 10 years of age, there’s a great focus on school, but as you move up in age, issues around puberty and relationships begin to appear, followed by the need to be prepared for the world of work.

The particular risks that young people say they face also evolve — dropping out of primary school comes up early on, but then HIV and pregnancy appear, around the same time that young people identify being taken advantage of in exploitative work.

The emotional tenor of the issues evolves as well. At the younger end of the age spectrum, young people talk about feeling the pressure to work and help out in the household, feeling the inequity of one’s gender and feeling vulnerable to the threat of abuse and exploitation. Feelings of uncertainty and unpreparedness emerge. This is what young people are telling us.

While in India, I had the opportunity to travel to a more remote area in the state of Orissa, where ChildFund has been working for a few years. There, I spent a couple of days talking to youth, and in the next blog, I’ll share what I learned.

Imagine Your Friend in Five Years

by Jason Schwartzman, ChildFund Team Leader for Child & Youth Involvement

In preparation for ChildFund’s Youth Program Summit in India, we’ve been talking to youth around the world, trying to get inside their heads to understand how they see the future unfolding, starting with their inner circle of friends.

We ask them to think of and actually draw a “friend” — a peer, a relative, a neighbor — someone they know well. We encourage them to be realistic. In five years, what do they really think their friend’s life situation will be? Not what they hope, but what they predict. We give them drawing materials, a quiet space, and we see what happens.

Often they are optimistic, like this drawing from a young Native American woman in the United States, who says her friend will be, “outgoing, energetic, and a great person to be around. She’s really bright and understanding. There is never a dull moment when you’re with her. She’s just a true friend.”

Sometimes they are quite sad, as illustrated by this prediction by a young woman in Sierra Leone, “Mary is the name of my friend. She is 16 years old. Mary is crying because she is carrying a heavy load. She is a girl. Mary is presently in the street. In five year’s time, Mary will be dropped out from school. She will be a failure in life.”

Sometimes young people are hopeful and romantic, as this future scenario envisioned by a young man in Bolivia, “Arturo is 19 years old and completed school and a lawyer’s course. He now has a fixed job and has a girlfriend called Katerin who is a teacher. The two love each other a lot and they get on really well. They like to go on walks. They are expecting Arturo’s baby.”

In other instances they predict that a friend’s situation could be transformed, as in this drawing by a young man in The Gambia. He writes: “My friend’s name is Abas. He is 13 years old. He is a male. In 5 years times, I am seeing my friend as someone who will not prosper in future because he don’t study at home. These might lead him to fail his exam. I think he may get involve in drug abuse, he can be in jail, or physically weak or die. If he change his mind and study hard and be punctual in school, he can be at the University or may even be sponsor by the president to go and read for further studies. He can therefore contribute to the nation development and build up a good family in future.”

In the next blog, we’ll take a look at the resources young people say they need to be successful.

Riddle Me This

by Jason Schwartzman, ChildFund Team Leader for Child & Youth Involvement

There are 1.2 billion of us, and we make up 18 percent of the global population. Almost all of us — 87 percent — live in developing countries. You know where we live? Mostly in Asia — almost two-thirds. And you know what? We can read and write — almost 90 percent of us are literate — and about 80 percent complete primary school education. Who are we?

Now, here’s some bad news. In developing countries, little more than half of us are enrolled in secondary school, and in the least developed countries, fewer than one-third. That’s enrolled only — forget about how few of us actually complete secondary school education. So, are we working? Love to — if we could find work. Do you know who we are now?

Photo of youth in IndiaWe are the world’s youth population.

I recently spent two weeks in India, a country that coincidentally has the largest national population of adolescents — 243 million. China’s not even close at 207 million. The U.S.? Try 44 million.

To celebrate ChildFund India’s 60th anniversary ChildFund hosted a gathering of youth who come from all parts of India, bringing them together with our staff from Asia, Africa and the Americas. Youth and staff, together in the same room, talking about the issues that youth face and how ChildFund might take their insights to strengthen its youth programs.

Over the next several days, I’ll be blogging about what we learned from the Youth Program Summit, and how ChildFund is approaching its work with this age group.

A Woman’s Story of Self-Empowerment

by Sachal Aneja, Communications Officer, ChildFund India


A few years ago, Basanti, 32, and her husband Udhab, could not afford basic necessities for their three children, much less the children’s small desires. The couple, who owned no land, were subsisting in a mud hut in a rural village in India.

Udhab, a daily wage laborer, used to sell wood he cut from a protected forest. Although cutting wood was illegal, Udhab believed it was the only way to feed his family of five, as there were few jobs in the village. The family lived in fear he would be caught and sent to jail.

ChildFund India bangles poverty

Udhab, Bsanti's husband with one of their children.

To protect the family from hunger and exploitation, Basanti courageously started a small business of selling bangles. She would carry a basket of bangles on her head and travel to several villages to sell them in the weekly markets.

“We could manage to buy bangles for only 25 to 45 cents (US), and I used to make consistent efforts to sell what I had. The sale was good but not enough,” says Basanti, recalling the initial days of her business. Because the profit earned was not always sufficient to support the family, Basanti and Udhab had to occasionally borrow from the local moneylenders who charged a high interest fee. Consequently, a large portion of their earnings were eaten away every month.

Self-Help Group ChildFund India

Basanti with her ChildFund Self-Help Group

The family’s situation began to turn around when their 10-year-old daughter, Nilabati, was enrolled in the local ChildFund project and matched with a sponsor to support her education, health and nutritional needs. Basanti became a member of the women’s Self-Help Group that ChildFund helped the village establish. During one of the group meetings, ChildFund educated Basanti and other women about micro-credit and how to access those services. Basanti began to think about expanding her business. Her hopes soared.

“I was excited to learn about the micro-credit support in our village”, says Basanti. As part of the LEEP (Livelihood and Economic Enhancement for the Poor) strategy, ChildFund helps marginalized families like Basanti’s increase their income through investment and support services.

With a recommendation letter from the Self-Help Group, Basanti applied for a loan of US$110, and was approved. She was then able to procure a large variety of bangles that she sold in five weekly village markets. A wider selection of bangles led to a sudden growth in customers. Basanti now earns a profit of US$77, more than triple the US$22 she earned before. A confident Basanti is repaying her loan.

“I feel very happy the way things are changing,” says Basanti. “I am now able to send all my children to school and meet their little wishes. I am now thinking of starting a fancy bangle store in future.”

Udhab also supports his wife in selling bangles to more villages and is looking forward to buying a small piece of land.

ChildFund India children poverty self-help

Basanti and her daughter, Nilabati

“I am very proud of my mother. What we are today is largely because of her efforts,” says an elated Nilabati.

In this small village of rural India, Basanti has become a great example of willpower, dedication and inspiration. She is still found cooking, sweeping, washing dishes and preparing children for school each morning before attending to her business – offering village women a selection of bangles representing the diverse colors of life.

Every day, Basanti works to bring happiness, peace and success to herself, her husband and, most important, her children.

Finding Generosity in the Palms of My Hands

by Nicole Duciaume
ChildFund Regional Sponsorship Coordinator
Americas Regional Office

As I finished talking to Daniel, Venkatesh and their father, a neighbor vigorously calls me over to her house. She wants to show me her craft – henna.

The problem: I fidget – a lot. So I’m not sure I’ll be able to sit for a long time while she slowly draws henna on the palms of my hands. However, my worries are short-lived when she shows me her henna stamp collection.

To create each stamp, she cut old rubber-soled shoes, usually discarded flip flops, and cleaned them to provide a good drawing surface. After drawing an elaborate design (such as leaves, flowers, fish, vines, hearts, suns, temples, bugs), she traces out the “empty space” with a razor blade or knife to create a stamp of the remaining, now elevated design.

She has a collection of more than 100 stamps, guaranteeing a unique combination for my palms. She takes her time picking through the collection, her husband offering suggestions as well. After choosing a large stamp, she dips it quickly into the dye, centers it and stamps it on the palm of my hand.

A fresh garland of jasmine is the finishing touch.

She then carefully selects a second stamp for each finger and a third stamp for the empty spaces. She repeats the process for my other hand, but with all different selections. In all, it takes about 10 minutes. This is her livelihood, and on the streets outside the settlement she charges 5 rupees (approximately 11 cents) per customer.

I am so excited with my henna hands that she immediately wants to take a picture with me, so that I will always remember her.

Admiring my new friend's henna-stamping skills.

This is just one example of the generosity I’ve found in this settlement. So often marginalized in their own society for being gypsies, they are excited we came from many different countries to visit with them and learn about their lives.

The children clamor to have their photos taken. The parents share their crafts and talents with us. We all share quite a few laughs as we tell each other about our customs, traditions and families.

I tell my henna artist friend that I would remember her even without the photos, but I am certainly glad I have them so I can share her story, along with Daniel’s and Venkatesh’s and so many others I’ve met while in Chennai.

Third-Grader Dreams of Being Mayor and Building a School

by Nicole Duciaume
ChildFund Regional Sponsorship Coordinator
Americas Regional Office

Venkatesh, a third-grader, looks a lot like his older brother Daniel, but he is a bit more outspoken. As we chat, his father guides us toward their family’s house.

Spending time with Venkatesh and his father.

As we walk past the kindergarten center, where the youngest of the three brothers is enrolled in pre-school activities, Venkatesh tells me that he remembers going there as well when he was younger. He has many good memories of a picnic, and a drawing competition where he won the gold medal for a picture he drew of a house. He also talks a little about his ChildFund sponsor and about writing letters back and forth.

Venkatesh tells me about his daily routine and the importance of school. He hopes to be an administrator collector, what I understood through the translator to be somewhat of a mayor. He aspires to the job so that he can one day “build a school for all the children in the area.”

In fact, going to school is his favorite part of the community. He beams when he explains that he likes talking to his father, especially when sharing news of his good marks in school. Overhearing our conversation, Venkatesh’s father smiles proudly and says, “Children should study so they could make changes in the community.”

The change that Venkatesh most wants is a better road in the settlement because the current one is made of packed dirt with many rocks that children fall over while playing ball. As proof, he rolls up his pant leg to his knee and begins counting the scars. But he smiles again as he tells me the fun he had playing hide-and-seek and ball with his brothers and friends.

I want to know what else make Venkatesh and Daniel happy. They quickly respond that being able to stay with their parents is important. Before ChildFund India and the Kalaiselvi Karunalaya Social Welfare Society began serving this settlement, the children’s parents would travel to find food and work. Often, the boys would stay behind with elders and go a long time without seeing their parents.

Now the family is able to stay together in the community.

Tomorrow, I learn more about the art of henna.

Gypsy Youth Tells of Picking Iron and Missing School

by Nicole Duciaume
ChildFund Regional Sponsorship Coordinator
Americas Regional Office

Following a morning presentation by our ChildFund India National Office colleagues on program history, areas, priorities and future goals, we anxiously pile into vans and set forth.

After zigzagging for about an hour through the busy streets of Chennai, we make an abrupt left turn onto a worn dirt road, which will take us to a ChildFund project with the Kalaiselvi Karunalaya Social Welfare Society (KKWS).

Founded in 1983, KKWS began partnering with ChildFund India in 1999. KKWS works in 15 villages and settlements, including six gypsy communities. Through our work with KKWS, we have enrolled more than 1,000 children in ChildFund programs. Approximately 800 of those children have sponsors. The major source of livelihood for gypsy families is iron and rag picking, as well as making beads and other traditional handicrafts. This is true of the family I met.

Getting to know Daniel (r), Venkatesh (l) and their father.

Daniel is 13 years old, and he has two younger brothers, Venkatesh, 8, and Guna, 5. Daniel is in second grade and his younger brother Venkatesh is in third. I thought I misunderstood their ages and grades and asked for clarification as to why Daniel was five years older, but a grade behind his younger brother. It was then that he told me what his life was like before ChildFund and how things have changed for him and his family since.

As the son of gypsies, Daniel did not attend school. He spent his days alongside his father picking up iron scraps. The labor wasn’t necessarily hard (you use a long stick with a rag-covered magnet on the end; as you walk around you trace the ground with the magnet and brush any iron scraps into a bucket to later sell to iron metal workers), but the hours were long.

Daniel would work from as early as 4 a.m. until late in the afternoon, and sometimes late evening if there was a recent festival that promised extra scraps. In leaner times, the family would beg for food, eat discarded food out of the rubbish piles along the streets and use slingshots to kill and eat squirrels and cats.

When his younger brother Venkatesh was enrolled in ChildFund programs, Daniel began non-formal education classes. He has made vast improvements in school (everything from his handwriting to self-expression and literacy) and now knows more about hygiene and balanced nutrition.

He attends school from about 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and can get help from the teachers at the local kindergarten if he needs assistance with his homework, since his parents are illiterate. Daniel tells me his favorite subject is math, though he also enjoys environmental sciences. After school, when he has finished his homework, he plays with the other children in the community, something he didn’t have time for when he worked.

Now he has a new dream — to become a policeman when he grows up so he can help people.

Tomorrow, I will tell you more about Daniel’s younger brother Venkatesh and the rest of the family.

Sights and Sounds of India: A Carnival for the Senses

by Nicole Duciaume
ChildFund Regional Sponsorship Coordinator
Americas Regional Office

Over the past 15 years, I’ve lived in and traveled throughout Latin America and even spent some short work assignments in Africa as well. But now, for the first time, I am in Asia—in Chennai, India, to be exact.

I am here representing ChildFund International’s Americas Regional Office at the ChildFund Alliance Sponsor Relations Network meeting. This is a unique opportunity for ChildFund Alliance members (Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Sweden, Taiwan and the United States) to come together to discuss priority issues to improve our sponsorship efforts and operations in our program countries around the world. We share best practices and lessons learned and help set priorities for the coming year.

I left Panama and nearly 30 hours later arrived in Chennai. After getting some rest, I set out on Sunday morning to explore the area in a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled, open-air scooter cab, of sorts). From my first hours in India, I can share that India is a carnival for the senses:

• Spice smells abound, wafting through the morning air.
• People are spilling out of stores, in the roads and out of bus windows.
• Horns are honking while bikes, mopeds, tuk-tuks, buses and vehicles weave through the streets.
• Roadside peddlers sell fruit, fish, vegetables, tires, sugarcane crushed into juice and coconut milk.
• Sunshine peeks out from behind the buildings and over the trees.
• Tile mosaics decorate walls, and even highway underpasses.
• Vibrant colors are everywhere — from Bollywood posters to political ads to colorful saris (not just red and blue, but fuchsia and turquoise; not just green and orange, but chartreuse and amber).
• Intricate religious shrines, decked with fresh flower garlands, are on several city corners.
• Storefronts sell electronics, fabrics, photocopies, jewelry, money transfers and meat.
• Green takes the form of trees, shrubs, flowers and city parks.
• Everyone seems to wear sandals…thin, worn and rugged.
• Cows stand idle on the sidewalks just outside ornate doors and gates.

Tomorrow we are visiting a ChildFund project community, followed by three days of conference presentations, discussions, debates and opportunities.

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