Thursday, February 21, 2013

Contradictions

Posted by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA CEO

Though the village of Ananthasagar in Medak District is just a 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Hyderabad it may as well be 150,000.

Plan International CEO, Tessie San Martin meets
with local NGO partners.
Hyderabad is the capital and largest city of the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It has also had one of the country's fastest growing economies, registering an average growth rate of over 8% between 2002- 2012. Much of the growth has been propelled by the Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) industry. The city is home to the gleaming Hyderabad Information Technology and Engineering Consultancy City (HITEC City), the largest Information Technology park in India. It is also the home of the Indian School of Business, among the most respected business schools in Asia.

In contrast, Ananthasagar gets electricity for no more than 6 hours a day. The families lack access to quality roads, and neither public transportation or even hospital ambulances venture anywhere near it. As a result, even minor medical complications quickly become fatalities.

Despite the healthy economic growth rates in the state and the humming high tech industry in Hyderabad, good jobs in Ananthasgar are virtually impossible to find, at least for the lower caste unskilled and unschooled inhabitants - who are vast majority of its population. Livelihood opportunities are so few that most of the parents in Ananthasagar must migrate constantly to find work (much of it agriculture-based activities like cotton-picking). The work they find is back-breaking, unlikely to yield more than a dollar a day. Contradictions.

There is a lower primary school (to 4th grade), staffed by a 20 year-old, teacher just out of college, who must walk several miles every day just to get to the school. If you want to attain anything higher by way schooling you need to walk several miles to another village. More contradictions.

Under these circumstances, many kids do not get to go to school at all. Girls are particularly disadvantaged. They are tasked with domestic chores, and at times enlisted to also help with the work in the fields or beedi (tobacco) rolling. There is little or no time to go to school. Girls are also more likely to be seen as a burden than a gift. No one believes they will amount to much. Better to marry them of as quickly as possible - since a young bride is less likely to exact a high dowry. And girls married off at 14 are unlikely to complete school, assuming they ever got there. So it becomes a vicious cycle: girls are less valued, so they are less likely to go to school, and more likely to be stuck with ill-paying manual labor. Escape seems impossible; their best prospects limited to an early marriage.

It is easy to despair. Where to start? Part of Plan's answer: one child and adult mindset at a time. Plan has supported the establishment of a Children's Protection Committee (CPC) in Ananthasagar. Like all CPCs instigated and supported by Plan in marginalized villages throughout the district (and the country), this one has a an overarching objective: to ensure that children are protected, and that they have an opportunity to break through the crushing cycle of poverty that has captured so many of their parents.

The CPC, made up of adults in the village, has an ambitious change agenda: targeting out of school children (OSCs), ending child marriage (most girls are married by 16), educating parents and duty bearers (the government officials, like the police, and other local authorities) on the need to keep children - especially girls - in school, preventing child labor. How do they do this? By peer-to-peer communications. Nothing fancy. Parents talking to parents. Teachers to teachers. Slow patient dialogue. One person at a time.

Plan has also helped form Children's Forum. And the CFs are a joy to watch. The girls (and because of the unique challenges facing girls in this area, most of the CF members are girls between 9 and 16) express themselves and their stories of forced labor, forced marriage, and abuse, through songs and dance. They proudly discuss with us the need to stay in school and describe for us their first meeting with the head of police in the area, how they told him of the need to protect them from violence, and to help ensure that the very good laws that India already has in its books (e.g. Indian law forbids early article or children into labor) are actually observed and enforced.

Do CPCs and CFs make a difference? Changing accepted cultural practices and beliefs, so central to breaking through the vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation facing girls in this area, is slow but critical work. Are they sufficient to addressing all the complex set of problems facing families in Ananthasagar? Of course not. Better roads, improved economic conditions and livelihood opportunities, as well as access to health and education for all, are necessary ingredients. But you could have all of this, and nothing much would change unless you are also tackling mind sets. And the CPCs and CFs do that. One girl, one parent, one district authority at a time.

Plan is able to undertake this slow, painstaking, messy work because of the long-term commitment of its donors. And while Plan believes these structures make a difference, we are not just trusting anecdotal information. Plan, again with the support of its donors, is investing in better documentation and research on the impact of various interventions and activities on attitudes and behaviors, as well as on key measurable outcomes, such as percentage of girls staying and completing school. This will enable us, and the Indian authorities and Community Based Organizations with which we partner, to better understand what works and what may be replicable and scalable. And over time together we will be able to eliminate these terrible contradictions.

1 comment:

  1. Having visited a PLAN USA project in India, Pune by myself last year, I am one more time inspired the difference Plan USA is doing world wide. I am in love with India, and still there is a lot of work to do in this country, full of colors, full of poverty...thanks to PLAN for bring some sunshine onto their black spots!

    Doerthe Braun, Betehsda MD

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