Children in the Driver's Seat
P. J. Lolichen
'We missed our playtime, free time and even marriage celebrations! But, we are very proud that we were able to do something for our village. We have identified our problems, we know the solutions and also how to get them solved ...'
A child researcher during the Process Documentation Workshop, Bangalore, April 1-3, 2005
In November 2004, we at CWC (Concerned for Working Children)received a request from the University of Durham-UK to participate in a study on children's mobility and access to education, health and other facilities. This was to be conducted in rural areas of three countries: Ghana, South Africa and India.
We found the proposal interesting as the children of Kundapur Taluk had just completed a complex exercise of developing 'Five-Year Plans' with their local governments; access and mobility, especially transport, had been flagged as major issues. The proposal, however, was for adults to study the problems faced by children, whereas the children we work with are used to studying their own issues and conducting their own research. This is one of the fundamental principles that CWC believes contributes to children's protagonism and informed participation. Therefore, we proposed that this study be conducted by the children who live in the study area themselves. We offered to provide the expertise for the University and the other partners in the study to enable the child participants to design and develop the methodology and tools to conduct the research.
Though a little hesitant at first, the University of Durham agreed.
The study had had the following principal objectives:
· to enable children to access, obtain, and manage information appropriately, in order to empower them to become their own protagonists;
· to enable children to identify and recognise problems, access and analyse data, and use the resulting information to take control of the issues they face and, further, to develop solutions to overcome them;
· to demonstrate firstly that children are capable of effectively participating in all democratic processes, provided that they are equipped with appropriate information and skills and secondly that their participation in such processes can bring about structural changes in the community.
CWC assembled a group of volunteer researchers. These were boys and girls in the age group of 9 to 18. About 85 percent of them were attending school and the remainder were working children. All the children who conducted the study were from low income and socially marginalised groups. It is significant to note that all the child researchers had very busy schedules – their school or work for the most part of the day, and then both in the morning and evening they had to do domestic chores such as grazing cattle, collecting fodder, fetching water or firewood, cooking, cleaning pots and vessels, washing clothes, running errands to the shops, milk booths, cooperative society, etc.
It was a big challenge for the children to find time to conduct such an extensive research exercise amidst all their responsibilities and chores. They managed this by conducting the study either on holidays or in the early morning or late evenings outside school and working hours. On a few occasions the school authorities sanctioned leave to the school children to conduct the study. The kids who participated in the study, despite all the shuffling around and time constraints, enjoyed the process and were proud of their achievements.
In the course of their research they interviewed over three hundred children, from all cross-sections of the community in the age group of 6 to 18 years. There was an equal number of boys and girls; they included working children and children who were going to school, as well as children with disabilities.
CWC began by organising five days of participatory, child-centred workshops.
Crucial to these workshops were the special sessions that were held with adults throughout the five days to provide in-depth understanding of the concepts and principles of children's rights, participation and protagonism. They were held in congruence with the appropriate sessions with children, so that the theoretical and practical applications were understood in concurrence. These sessions were specifically designed to help adults design new tools and processes that would be useful in promoting children's rights and participation, as well as creating a healthy environment in which children could conduct their own research and work towards realising their rights.
The children developed elaborate research methods, running from initial rapid appraisals through detailed mapping, interviews and traffic counts (which also involved weighing the loads carried by children), followed by focus-group discussions to fill any gaps.
These are some typical examples of the problems they discovered.
To the North of the bus stop there is a footpath that leads to Tenkarkodi area. On the West side of the footpath there is a cashew plantation. On the East side there is playground. There is a dry well in the plantation, approximately 10 feet away from the playground. It is used for waste disposal, and is filled with glass and syringes. Children are worried about people falling in, as it is 15-20 feet deep. One drunkard and a child have already fallen in and died.
- Excerpt from Observation Map, Gujjadi Panchayat, March 6, 2005
There is a small bridge from Aajri to Jangsale, which is in bad condition. Around 50-60 children and 200-300 adults use this route for many purposes. At present, as they cannot use this bridge, they have to walk for 6-7 kilometres. People are finding it very difficult, especially children who go to school. Thus, this bridge should be repaired so that all can move freely across it and save time and avoid all the trouble of walking.
- Excerpt from PRA Exercise, Aajri Panchayat, November 2005
In Hebbarbail-Manki area in Gujjadi Panchayat there is a stream that runs across the footpath leading to Nayakwadi village. During the rainy season, it is impossible to cross this stream and children are forced to walk around it on either side. However, there are many cashew trees along these paths, which make it difficult to walk along. Children worry about getting their clothes and belongings caught and torn on the branches of the trees. Anganwadi-aged children are not able to take this route at all.
- Excerpt from Observation Map, Gujjadi Panchayat, March 3, 2005
Manjula, a 13- year old working child from Nayakwadi, is able to walk to the shop, as it is close by. However, in order to get to the market or the ration store, she needs to take the bus. It is a problem for her to go to these places because it takes her such a long time to go and she has a lot of work to do at home. It is also a problem for her to carry heavy loads, since there are many ups and downs, and small stones along the route that she frequently uses. There are forests on either side of the route that Manjula takes to get to the hospital, temple, and to fetch water. She also has to pass a cemetery, which frightens her. There is a water facility close to her house, but it does not supply water regularly.
- Interview with Manjula, Gujjadi Panchayat, February 6, 2005
Children from Shalegudde and Kodladi area have to walk for half an hour into the forest to fetch firewood. The footpath in the forest is very bushy and they have to make their path by cutting the thorny bushes. They have to fetch firewood at least once or twice per week. The smaller kids between 8-12 years carry the firewood weighing 3-7 kilograms and children between the ages of 13-17 years have to carry an average of 8-15 kilograms of firewood. They complained of neck, hand and leg pain due to carrying the load of firewood.
- Excerpt from Process and Documentation Workshop, Bangalore, April 1- 3, 2005
On completion of the study, representative Child Research protagonists got together at a workshop to consolidate the findings, document the process of the study and to develop an advocacy strategy to find appropriate solutions to the problems they raised.
The ultimate objective of this research process was to empower children by facilitating them to acquire new skills and information and to enable them to use this information to change their lives for the better.
However, by participating in this project the children have gained much more than this on both a personal and professional level. The process has equipped them with skills and expertise in information management, including developing and applying appropriate methods, talking to other children and adults with confidence, meeting up and discussing with key stakeholders in their community, learning to negotiate and argue their point, substantiating their arguments with appropriate data, making presentations, advocating their cause at various levels, including internationally and finding appropriate solutions to their problems.
The children from the districts involved in the research have formed their own organisations and are working on various issues that affect them as a collective. They have an identity and they are highly recognised in their villages.
They faced immense challenges carrying out the research. They found it extremely difficult to juggle between their regular schooling/work, domestic chores and work on the research project. They also faced certain ridicule and embarassment from some quarters of the community, who found children's work very whimsical and silly; some were even offensive saying, 'They are keenly involved in the project because this provides opportunity for the girls and boys to meet up.' In some cases the researchers were turned away by parents or adults when they went to collect information from their children. The parents of some of the researchers were unwilling to let their children partipate. Not many gave into the restrictions of the parents, because they saw and experienced the benefit of being part of the process. The children have also lost their playtime, attendance in marriage ceremonies, holidays, opportunity to visit their friends and relatives. However, in the final analysis the children said that they had more gains than losses.
The research by children has enabled them to gain control over the process as well as to have ownership over the information they collected. It is the children who designed the process of the research, developed appropriate methods and tools as well collected and documented the information. The adults played the role of facilitators, enabling them with information and skills.
The child researchers have recognised the strength of collective and the need to work together to get their issues solved. They have not allowed their findings to remain mere information. They are working with various stakeholders in the community to address the problems identified such as getting footbridges built, starting crèches, filling potholes, blacktopping roads, etc. They are also negotiating with the key stakeholders such as the Gram Panchayat and the school authorities, to institutionalise children's participation in their Panchayat. They are in the process of setting up the Makkala Panchayats (Children's Village Councils) in each of their Panchayats. They want to ensure that children's participation in decision-making and governance is permanent and official.
Children's participation in social planning and research is not an end in itself, but rather it is a process that continuously needs to be re-evaluated, altered and evolved according to their needs. Research and advocacy by children has made it possible for them to participate actively in democratic processes. They are leading the way to making governments accountable. They have started a revolution for change and the adult world is yet to catch up with them.
(The CWC website is at http://www.workingchild.org)