The importance of education

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As I write this blog post, I notice a quote on the cover of an English textbook that belongs to a former SBT kid: “A child without education is like a bird without wings“.

Indeed, this is the sense that I get from interviewing and meeting former and current SBT children during the past few days. To them, education is the way to make a change in their life, to live a life they want and to become the person they wish to be. When asked about the future, SBT children aspire to be professors, doctors, tour guides, performance directors and many more. Ajay*, a young man from SBT who is about to start university, shared that education taught him that attitude is everything:

“While studying, I learnt what it means to be a man, and I mean a gentleman. If one does not know how to respect others, it is not good.”

As the children reflect back, they share with a soft smile, lost in their thoughts at their disbelief of how much they have achieved, and how far they have come – from a life on the streets without knowing whether there will be a tomorrow, to today, a confident individual who has dreams to catch, has the desire to help others and be a role model. They are proud of who they are.

But they do not forget their past.

When they walk on the streets and come across street children and families, they still connect with them, and urge them to come to SBT’s shelter homes. Some of these street families do not recognise the importance of education, and continue to relish the freedom of the streets, even if it means a daily struggle of earning enough money for food and medicine. Young girls have to marry early as their husbands will protect them from the dangers of the street, especially at night. Some of these families use the money to take drugs without realising the long-term health consequences. With the government “cleaning” the cities by ridding homeless people, these families struggle to find shelter too. The situation is especially dire in the biting cold during the harsh winter, with no shelter, no warmth and not enough food. The effects of this life rests not only with the current generation, but also the next – it becomes a tragic, vicious cycle.

Because of their past, SBT children recognise they have a shared experience with current street families. They know what it is these street families want, what they are thinking, and what exactly they need to say to persuade these families to leave street life for a more sustainable future in education.

The situation is urgent.

As the quote at the beginning of this post goes, indeed in India, a life on the streets without education is like a bird without wings. It takes a lot of time, patience, and persistence. However, when one bird in the family finally recognises the freedom of flying, soon after, we will see in the sky, the other birds flying along.

* Name changed for confidentality

Instead of buying a cup of coffee, donate your £2 to support street children’s education at SBT: https://www.friendsofsbt.org/#

Words by Loritta

Breaking the period taboo

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It is likely that a full four in ten Indian women do not have access to disposable sanitary towels. This is the case for the girls who live on the streets and are more focused on food, water, and shelter.

Mothers teach their daughters to use cloths. When there is nothing else to use, they resort to dirty cloths or even old newspaper. It is not just safe clean sanitary products that are needed, but it is access to safe and private toilets, too. They also need clean water for washing, a safe place to wash, and places to dry reusable products.

Reusable products or cloths must be washed and dried properly.

When they are dried in a dark corner, hidden away, out of sight and out of sunlight, this increases the chance of infection. Infection causes irritation, embarrassment, and further complications. When safe drying areas aren’t available, proper information and medical support are unlikely. Illness can emerge and last for years.
One of the most important ways to improve menstrual hygiene is to break the taboo that leads to women hiding their periods in dark corners. Lack of information and silence on the matter acts to fuel the stigma. The main barrier is a lack of education and especially education for men.
Girls in the care of the SBT children’s homes get good education about puberty, periods and sex. For the children on the street, their health and sex education is more likely to come from word of mouth or from watching porn on mobile phones. This lack of information can lead to dangerous attitudes towards women and unhealthy practices when it comes to menstruation.
Educating men and boys around menstrual health is important. But education of boys around sexual health and safe practices may be even more important.

A comprehensive “life skills” curriculum is taught in schools in India, and it covers many aspects of sex and sexuality. As with menstrual health those children not enrolled in school miss out.

Nevertheless, the legacy of sexual inequality is obvious. Public toilets for men are plentiful and free in Delhi. There are far fewer for women – and in all cases they must pay to use them. Condoms are cheaper here than the most basic sanitary products.
We have initiated a workshop on hygiene and sexual health for girls currently living on the street, run by older girls who live in SBT homes. The workshops are animated and provide a friendly reunion – many of these girls remember each other.

So far the workshops have been run by girls but we will expand these to include workshops run by young men, for young men, this weekend.

 

 

Instead of buying a cup of coffee, donate £2 to support street children’s education at SBT: https://www.friendsofsbt.org/#

 

Words by Rachel

Women Talk

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Team thinking

Today Adam, Rachel and I (Alice) had a meeting with three young women who are currently in, or had recently graduated from the care of Salaam Balaak Trust’s (SBT) shelter homes. The purpose of our meeting was to discuss a potential ‘Women’s Walk of Delhi’ to complement the existing City Walks run by SBT. We wanted to use the women’s walk to raise awareness about women’s issues in Delhi and the workshops that the three young women are currently facilitating to help educate younger girls living on the street about issues such as growing up, periods, hygiene and consent. These are really important issues for young people living on the street where it can be difficult to access both the knowledge and products necessary to stay safe and well. Ayesha*, one of the young women, told us some of the questions she had been asked when she facilitated the first workshop last Friday. Questions such as:

“Why does our skin get so itchy?”
“Sometimes we get pains during our periods. Why?”

The young women facilitating the workshop already held an impressive array of knowledge and were easily able to answer these questions. In response to “why does our skin get itchy?”, Ayesha responded with “because you need to wash more”. Simple answer right?

Not so.

Children and young people living on the streets have extremely limited access to safe washing facilities. They also have poor access to sanitary products when they have their periods. Luckily, the young women we met today knew of an affordable and usable solution – they told us about re-usable pads which can be washed and used time and again for up to three years. We worked out the costs and it turns out to be around £35 to get these products for 50 girls.

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Three of the workshop leaders

Now this is where our ‘Women’s Walk’ really shines. We can use the money made through the walk to buy sanitary products and perhaps even set some aside to help build safe cleaning facilities for young people living on the street.

Or so we thought.

After having discussed the idea with as many SBT staff as we could, it became clear that there was a real concern for the safety of the young women leading the walking tours. It was generally felt that it wouldn’t be safe for the young women, who may be subject to unwanted attention, harassment, and even sexual harassment. Having heard these concerns, Adam, Rachel and I talked among ourselves and agreed that there was absolutely no way we would risk the safety and well-being of anyone on the team for the project. We felt deeply frustrated that the very issues we want to raise awareness about were encroaching on the feasibility of the project.

We couldn’t settle for that.

The issue of safety highlighted the importance of this initiative even more. If women are not even safe to talk and walk around familiar local neighbourhoods, urgent societal change is needed. So we’ve been thinking of alternative solutions and have a couple of exciting options. Right now, I’m going to leave you hanging – I don’t want to announce our plans while they remain half-baked. We haven’t even spoken to the young women on the team yet and it feels important to do that first. So let me leave you with a question instead: If you were to ask these young women about their experiences of growing up in Delhi from girlhood, what would you ask?

We really value your thoughts so please get involved in the conversation and comment below! If you would like to donate to the project you can do so here.

~ Alice.

*Name changed for confidentiality.

Small Things

“THEY KNEW THERE was nowhere for them to go. They had nothing. No future. So they stuck to small things. They laughed at the ant-bites on each other’s bottoms. At clumsy caterpillars sliding off the ends of leaves. At overturned beetles that couldn’t right themselves…at a particularly devout preying mantis.”
                                             From The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

I love this quote by Indian Author Arundhati Roy. Whilst in many ways it is not at all fitting to the children supported by Salaam Balaak Trust (SBT) who do have something, somewhere to go,  bright futures. In another sense, it fits perfectly. At least it fits with a small moment I shared with some children attending the mobile school yesterday, whose energy and enthusiasm for singing, dancing, photography and the simple pleasure of jumping, startled me out of heat-induced huffiness. This month, I have a lot to learn; I only hope I also have something to give.

~ Words and photos by Alice.

Be Curious

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Life is complicated. And street life is no different. For the past few days, our team has been given an introduction to some of the complex issues surrounding life on the street, and what it means to provide care to current and former street children. We’ve grappled with questions such as “how do we know if caring attempts are successful?”, “Is it ever OK to remove a child from their family?”, “Does that answer change when the family want their child back?”, “What must it feel like for parents to have their children taken away from them?”

We don’t have answers; these questions don’t evoke clear cut answers.  What feels important, though, is that we are considering the nuances of these complex social realities, navigating through them together, whilst considering how our own life experiences, like the haze of Delhi itself, colour our views. This isn’t a bad thing, but a reality of the human condition.

We’re here for three more weeks, and during that time we’ll be getting involved in a variety of projects including life skills workshops, data-management, and qualitative data collection. So things are all go here in Delhi and change is constant. But there is a quality we share that does not waver – our curiosity into the lives of the people we meet and the society surrounding them. I’m reminded of the following quote:

“REMEMBER to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

                                 ~ Stephen Hawking.

~ Words & photo by Alice.

Visiting SBT’s shelter homes

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During the past few days, we had the opportunity to visit Udaan girls’ home, the DMRC  (Delhi Metro Rail Corporation) boys’ home, the DUSIB (Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board) family shelter home and the mobile school, which are shelter homes that Salaam Balak Trust runs for street children. Usually, when a street child is received at the contact points, SBT tries to locate their parents across the country. It is no easy feat at all in a country with a vast population with limited government services. However, even when the parents/guardians are located, many of them are unable to provide the support and care which these children need, and thus are received by SBT’s shelter homes after negotiation.

There is a saying that runs, “A smile is the shortest distance between any two people”. It is true. At the beginning when we arrived at all the homes, we would exchange wide grins and friendly waves with one another, asking each other’s names in Hindi and play with them. It didn’t take that long for us to quickly bond with each other. Their overflowing confidence, eagerness to learn and enthusiasm to make us feel at home in their homes were heartwarming. At Udaan and DMRC, children would come to us and eagerly give us a tour of where they studied, played and lived. The boys at DMRC would peek around the door and wave at us with a bright smile, while the girls at Udaan would tell us about their favourite subjects in school, share with us their favourite games to play, and have even a little bit of affectionate teasing on who was the naughtiest little girl in the home!

Meanwhile at the DUSIB family shelter home, children from aged 5 to 15 would be provided with basic Math, English and Hindi lessons. Unlike the children from Udaan and DMRC, these children are with their families and SBT provides the family with support and shelter. While the parents/guardians worked outside during the day, the children would be provided with education at DUSIB. The children were working on their homework when we arrived, and showed us their notebooks. One little girl, *Anjali who was 10 years old shared with me that her family was forced to leave their village due to family conflicts, which was why they came to Delhi. Both Anjali and her parents believed in the power and value of education – she shared with me that one day, she wants to be a doctor so she could help others. Another girl shared with me her aspirations to become a teacher, so she could teach and inspire other street children. They exuded motivation and diligence to achieve their dreams. It was inspirational hearing their stories, and learning what really matters to them.

Finally, the mobile school, is a program where Santosh, a social worker from SBT, visits street children at their homes and provides them with nonformal education every evening. This would also include basic English, Hindi and Math. During the day, these children either work or go to school from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. We had a cultural exchange that evening! We played football, danced to Indian songs and also showed them the Scottish highland fling and sang songs. They very much enjoyed taking pictures, especially selfies. The moment someone is spotted taking a picture or selfie, they all rush and squeeze in with pose and smile ready. As someone who is reserved and usually takes a long time to open up, I couldn’t help but feel connected instantly. Their smiles, warmth and happiness were so infectious. Being with them made me ponder about how we live life. Sometimes, we make life more complicated than it needs to be. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much – just the simple things in life leave a deep impression, and a heartfelt happiness that cannot easily be bought.

These first visits made me realise more about the different ways this partnership opportunity is a research and learning experience. I look forward to the coming weeks in learning more about the lives of SBT children, their world views and their aspirations.

*Name changed for confidentiality issues

Words by Loritta

Salaam Balaak Trust City Walk

Delhi does not acquiesce easily to description. It is a city of violent contrasts and extremes unimaginable until you see them, hear them, feel them, or have them described to you by somebody who has lived it. This is one of the purposes of SBT’s Citywalk, a chance to get to know Delhi from a perspective of one who has wriggled out from underneath its weight.

Our leader on this particular walk was Devraj, a young man from Nepal who had made his way to Delhi as a ‘promised land’ and to leave a father who used drugs. He was chipper about his ordeals having under the auspices of SBT made a good life for himself. His ambition is to be a tour guide, so he is more than halfway to his dream.

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Our guide Devraj asks us to reply “chalo” (“let’s go!”) when he says “chale?” (“shall we go?”)

We were led around the close, dense streets of Paharganj, down alleys that may have otherwise been forbidding. You learn very quickly to watch your feet, and skip the swathes of rubbish piled up in odd places, the animal excrement, the strewn pieces of scrap wire. You know that what is left on the ground is all worthless, as we pass through a rubbish seller’s street, where everything is being traded. Scrap metal is piled up behind ranks of plastic bottles, huge bales of plastic are carried on cycle-carts and human backs.

Entering the forecourt of the rail station, New Delhi, the main station of the city, comes as something of a relief from the incessant motor noise of the city streets; the noise here is of a different tenor, more human hubbub and strident tannoy. An oasis of calm is the original SBT “Contact point”, a set of rooms on top of the Rail Police outpost, where children from the railways can come for informal education, a meal, medical care, quiet. Proudly displayed are pictures of the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, when the paint on the walls was considerably brighter. This contact point was the first SBT initiative, a way of providing something for the children that come everyday to the city by hopping on the trains, and who form groups in the station and its environs. Social workers will work with the children, and now house them in SBT’s homes and hostels if they ask.

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It was Priyanka’s first time giving a city tour, not that we’d have known – she was a natural!

Our walk ended in the main office of SBT, down a side-street in Paharganj. Here we listened to the story of Priyanka, our other guide, an orphan who had been through many homes, but is now a motivated young woman who, in addition to guiding a group for the first time, was preparing to take her exams. The resolve shown by both our guides was heart kindling.

They are no longer just our guides but our colleagues. These are only two stories from the lived experiences of SBT and we will find more in every person here. Our work has only just begun, and through these stories we’re beginning to see the humanity that makes Delhi what it is, and the city itself become slightly more welcoming, slightly more human.

Words by Chris.

Photos by Alice, Rachel and Loritta.