Seva Mandir’s Child Representative Programme
Seva Mandir’s Child Representative Programme (CRP), funded by Plan, selects a number of (representative) children from deprived backgrounds in various villages and tracks their development in education and broader social skills until they graduate from secondary school at the age of 18 and are ready to move on to higher education. Under the programme, each representative child is monitored on a regular basis to ensure that they continue in education even if the family moves away from the village.
Plan’s overall objective is child protection in the broadest sense, not least for children whose family background and economic circumstances make them particularly vulnerable to child trafficking, child labour and other forms of abuse. Seva Mandir is the implementing partner and is given both responsibility and authority to decide how Plan’s objective should be achieved. The funding received from Plan is calculated by reference to the number of children in the programme. The funding goes into a central pot to enable Seva Mandir to run the programme and not to individual children. Plan is actively involved in monitoring the programme and its representatives visit on a regular basis.
In each village where the CRP operates, Seva Mandir assists the community to establish a Bal Manch (literally: a platform for children) which is a forum in which the representative children meet regularly within the framework of a structure in which the older children are elected to specific roles, for example chairperson, minister for discipline (e.g. in the conduct of meetings), minister of sport. At the regular meetings, which are facilitated or at least attended by the Seva Mandir zonal worker or another appointed and trained adult from the village, the representative children discuss issues facing young people in the community and consider solutions which may then be raised with the village council, the GVC. One example might be the lack of open spaces and necessary equipment to enable children in the community to play. The Bal Manch may decide to raise a small sum from each child (Rs 20) and then ask the GVC to assist in funding the purchase of basic games equipment (bats, balls, etc). Another issue might be the absence of a teacher at the local school. Here again, the Bal Manch might raise the issue with the GVC which in turn might approach Seva Mandir to assist with the interviewing of candidates for the teaching position. In other words, this aspect of the programme provides a forum for these children, who are from particularly challenging backgrounds, in which they can address, with appropriate guidance, local issues of direct relevance to children and young people, and gives them a voice which is heard in the adult community.
Consistently with Plan’s focus on child protection, the Bal Manch is a forum for workshops and other ways of raising awareness of issues such as child labour, child trafficking, child marriage and other forms of child abuse, as well as gender issues more generally. The awareness raising often takes the form of case studies in which, in the context of a real life example, the relevant laws designed to protect children are explained as part of the overall objective of ensuring that families and the wider community are familiar with the risks and children’s rights. This means that the discussion is conducted not only in the Bal Manch and Bal Melas (fairs which focus on children’s issues) but, most importantly, in wider village meetings so that it becomes a part of the collective consciousness. Seva Mandir plays an important role, through its zonal workers, in training the local trainers on child protection issues.
Krishna Pura in Girwa is a village of some 450 households and the destination for our field trip to learn in more detail about the Child Representative Programme both from Abrar Ahmed, the Seva Mandir CRP representative, and by speaking to five young people, all of whom have been part of the programme.
Seva Mandir started its involvement with the community in Krishna Pura in the 1980s. The NGO’s contribution has focused in particular on adult education, the establishment of a Women’s Resource Centre and a women’s Self-Help Group, a Shiksha Kendra (SK, or bridge school in an area where children do not have easy access to a government school), a Joint Forest Management Committee (in which the local community works with the Forest Department to manage forestland surrounding the village) and two irrigation lift wells. The installation and successful operation of the lift wells, which enable local farmers to irrigate a much larger area of cultivable land, has led to increased agricultural productivity and higher incomes. This in turn has enabled the local community to contribute to the establishment of the SK. It has also meant, for example, that the current teacher in the SK, who is also a farmer, has the time to devote to his teaching duties. The teacher joins our group sitting on a durrie in the shade of the terrace of a private house in the village, atop a small hillock with lovely views over the Girwa countryside. His daughter, Anita, is one of our interviewees.
When the Child Representative Programme was started in Krishna Pura in 2005, Seva Mandir selected 30 children, 15 boys and 15 girls, from low-income and socially challenged families where the children were typically living some distance from the nearest school and therefore at risk of not attending or attending irregularly. A key initial question for Seva Mandir was whether the CRP could successfully reach these children. The rule was that only one child could be selected from a single family. At the time, the children selected were aged between three and eight. The first objective of the programme was to ensure that these children attended a school and then continued their education until they reached at least the age of 18. Accordingly, with Plan’s support, a major feature of the programme is the tracking and monitoring of these individual children, not least if the families migrate away from the village.
Seva Mandir’s zonal team had arranged for five young people, two girls and three boys, all of whom had been part of the programme, to return to the village to meet us. I was accompanied by Anshul from Seva Mandir’s Resource Mobilization Unit, who conducted the interviews with me and provided invaluable translation (Hindi-English).
Prem, a tall, slim young man now aged 20, was our first interviewee. He comes from a large family and has five brothers and sisters. When he was selected for the programme, his family was living below the poverty line. His parents were agricultural labourers who had devoted all of their very little disposable income to their children’s education. This meant that they had done almost nothing to improve their basic mud-walled dwelling situated a few hundred metres away from where we were sitting (and to which we were later invited to partake of delicious chai). Their efforts had clearly been repaid since all the children had completed their schooling. Prem’s father had himself been at school until 12th standard (final school year), whilst his mother had not attended school.
His father had later been a member of the village council (GVC) and had seen the value of a good education. With the improvement in local agriculture resulting from the irrigation lift wells which were installed with Seva Mandir’s help, Prem’s father had been supportive of the establishment in the community of a Seva Mandir SK, to which the community was able to contribute from the proceeds of sale of surplus agricultural produce. The greater supply and wider distribution of water had also been instrumental in reducing the need for child labour on the land.
Prem himself had started his schooling in the SK. Clearly a bright lad, Prem had passed through five standards in one year before going on to the government school in the area. (It was explained that the government school was situated on one side of a gulley which became a river in the monsoon, making access in these months for some, particularly the smaller children, impossible.) When he joined the government school, Prem’s time at the SK placed him in a good position since his level of academic achievement was higher than that of his contemporaries who had started in the government school. It was explained that the government gave academic prizes to pupils in its schools and that some 80% of these were awarded to pupils who had been to a Seva Mandir SK.
Asked to compare the teaching in both schools, Prem said that, in government schools, the teachers did not focus on individual pupils. The teachers would read the lesson and the pupils would write it down as best they could. There was no variety in the teaching method. In the SK, on the other hand, the teacher paid more attention to the needs of individual pupils and was prepared to explain basic issues in response to questions. There were also extra-curricular activities in the SK but none in the government school. Finally, the teacher-pupil ratio was around 1:60 in government schools but 1:25 or 1:30 in the SK.
Prem, having completed his schooling to 12th standard, was now hoping to study for a diploma in engineering in Udaipur’s Sukhadia college. His family’s finances being what they were, however, Prem could not afford the fees for the course and had asked if Seva Mandir would in some way be able to assist him. (At the time of writing, his request is being considered.) In the meantime, whilst enrolled as a private student, Prem was working in an office doing administrative duties to earn money and was therefore unable to attend the course. (It was explained that students who could not afford their course fees could nevertheless enrol for the course, as so-called private students, but did not attend the classes. The private students could take the examinations but it was clear that, with no tuition and limited time to study, there was little merit in doing so other than being able to say that they were ‘pursuing’ their higher education.)
Priyanka is more fortunate: she is pursing her higher education studies in Udaipur in geography, economics and Hindi literature as a regular student, i.e. one who is in a position to pay the course fees and who therefore attends the classes. Priyanka’s ambition is to go on to teachers’ training and study for her B.Ed. with a view to remaining in the city, which she felt had more to offer and provided greater opportunities to continue to learn, to teach geography. She is particularly interested in human geography.
Priyanka has one brother, who himself had taken his B.Ed., and one sister, who is still at school. Her parents had always been supportive of their children receiving the best education available to them.
Priyanka had attended only a government school. Unlike Prem, she had found that the teachers in her school had ‘taught properly’ and that she had been able to partake in extra- curricular activities.
We asked Priyanka how the CRP and, in particular, participation in the activities of the Bal Manch had helped her. She referred to the regular meetings in the Bal Manch at which schools, studies and other issues relevant to children and young people were discussed. The Bal Manch allowed members to take on various roles: she, for example, had been elected as minister for discipline ensuring that individuals conducted themselves properly and that the activities, including the meetings, of the Bal Manch, ran smoothly. Asked whether this role had helped her to develop certain inter-personal skills, she replied somewhat diffidently that she had been elected to the post most probably because she was naturally bossy! But we suspected that the discipline of exercising such a role in a peer group organization like the Bal Manch had helped her (and others) to develop invaluable skills not taught in school.
Priyanka also referred to the workshops which were organized under the programme and extra training sessions on various topics which had been organized during the school holidays. She had attended residential courses on child protection at Seva Mandir’s facilities at Kaya.
All of these activities had ‘helped to groom’ her. Priyanka would go back to her school and tell her friends about the activities and what she had learnt. Spreading the word to other children in the community (but not in the programme) was an essential objective of the representative aspect of the CRP: to encourage and motivate others to pursue their education and learn as much as they could about the issues facing young people and the solutions available. This is particularly important for children from families who do not support their education, unlike Priyanka’s family.
Priyanka also explained that she comes back to the Bal Manch whenever she can to talk to the current members and attend meetings. She sees the role of alumni as explaining to those following in their footsteps the value of continuing their education and helping to provide motivation.
Finally, Priyanka spoke of the special bond between the 30 children, of which she was one, who had participated in the programme. She was still in touch with all of them.
Anita is a slight, bubbly girl and the daughter of the teacher at the SK. At 19 she is the eldest of seven sisters and brothers (she has three of each). At the time Anita was selected for the programme, her father was engaged full-time in farming and the family was struggling to make ends meet. The improvement in local agriculture as a result of the new lift wells subsequently enabled him to combine his farming with his teaching role at the SK.
Anita had attended the SK for two years and passed out of 5th standard. She had then attended the government school, which was two to three kilometres from her home and on the wrong side of the gulley which became a river in the monsoon, making it impossible for her to attend in those months.
Asked about the differences between the SK and the government school, Anita said that the latter did not focus on building basic comprehension of key issues and that pupils were too scared to ask questions if they did not understand. When asked to amplify her point about basic comprehension, Anita took as an example the failure of the teacher in the government school to explain the basic rules for forming words, without which pupils later struggled in their use of correct Hindi.
Anita also referred, as the others had done, to the extra-curricular activities in the SK: in particular dancing, which she clearly enjoyed.
Obviously a bright student, Anita is now studying computer science in Udaipur and is in the second year of a four-year course. Asked how well the government school had prepared her and students like her for higher education compared with students from private schools, Anita said that she and those in her position were not well prepared and were at a disadvantage compared with students from private schools. In the engineering department where Anita was following her computer science course, for example, all the teaching is in English – but the government school had not taught English. The university laid on special English tuition for students from government schools, and the examinations in the first two years could be sat in Hindi; but, from the third year, the examinations were in English only. Nevertheless, Anita was heartened by the fact that all the hard work was worthwhile since all students successfully passing out of her college would be offered good jobs.
Asked about the advice she would give younger pupils, Anita stated very clearly: first, they should focus on their studies and, secondly, improve their knowledge of English.
Turning to her experience of the CRP and in particular the Bal Manch, Anita confirmed that the Bal Manch encouraged equality between boys and girls: for example girls were given an equal opportunity to speak in meetings, and chores, like sweeping, were divided equally. When the five interviewees were asked whether this equal treatment carried over into their homes, there was some discussion, but the consensus was that life in all their homes still tended to be rather conservative and that girls did not enjoy the same rights or privileges as boys. However, when representatives of the Bal Manch went to address the village council (GVC), for example, there would be one girl and one boy.
Rakesh had one sister who worked in the Punjab National Bank. He too had attended the SK for two years, passing out in 5th standard. After that, he attended but did not like the government school. Rakesh cited the teacher-pupil ratio and the lack of personal attention in the government school.
Rakesh was now enrolled as a private student, like Prem, on a B.A. course but was obliged to work in a hospital, where he attended to patient registration, to earn his way and support his family. Ideally, he too would like to follow a course in history, political science and Hindi literature.
The last of our interviewees, who had waited most patiently, was Jitendra, who is now studying for an engineering diploma as a regular student. He is fortunate that his father has a good job and is able to support the family without having to count on income generated by Jitendra.
When asked about his experience in the Bal Manch, Jitendra recalled in particular the sporting activities which had been non-existent in the government school. He enjoyed his cricket and football!
Rakesh too praised the sports training he had received. He had been elected minister for sport in the Bal Manch, as had Prem. Jitendra himself appeared to have been appointed a minister without portfolio.
Anita had been appointed minister for cleanliness. Everyone giggled! Surely this was minister for health!
At this point, the interviews completed, the group posed for photographs and we were then invited to Prem’s house for chai. His mother and other villagers recounted stories of village children being eaten by tigers and goats by leopards!
Prem’s mother was now also the distributor in the village of the new cookstoves which were more efficient than the traditional open fires and qualified for the carbon credit system administered in many villages now by Urja (featured in our Spring 2016 E-newsletter).
The very welcome chai consumed, we headed back, stopping for lunch at a 3,000-year-old temple whilst keeping an eye out for the tigers. Field trips never cease to amaze and inspire in equal measure!
Text and photographs by John Pheasant