Shanta Sinha has bagged the Magsaysay Award for her work to bridge the great gap between poor children and mainstream education
Bangalore: Shanta Sinha and the MV Foundation (MVF) bridge the great gap between poor children and mainstream education. For this pioneering work, Sinha has recently been conferred with the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for 2003 for Community Leadership (contribution towards bringing education a reality for poor children).
A professor in the department of political science, Hyderabad Central University, Sinha is the trustee secretary of MVF (). She is also in charge of laying the policy guidelines for MVF. In an exclusive interview with domain-b, she shares her views on bagging the coveted award and her untiring work. Excerpts:
What was your reaction when you heard about the good news?
It's a great honour to be included among the eminent persons who have earlier received this award. At the same time, I felt that it was a vindication of our stand that no child must work and every child must attend full-time formal schools.
What does the award mean to you? And has it given a boost to MVF and its initiatives?
The award gives tremendous energy to all our volunteers and support groups in the villages who have been working relentlessly, against all odds to bring children to schools.
Will this honour mean your responsibility has increased?
The award has given us a larger circle of well-wishers with whom one can build alliances and networks, thus helping in sharing the responsibility.
What was the foundation's reaction?
Currently, MVF staff and volunteers are expressing gratitude to all those who have supported them in their endeavour to withdraw children from work and bring them into schools.
Are you celebrating?
The response at our work arena has been tremendous. In several villages, especially in remote tribal pockets, there have been celebrations - rallies and torchlight meetings. In Shankarpally [in Andhra Pradesh] the community is quite ecstatic even as the newspapers went in short supply. At the foundation we are all simply overwhelmed at this expression of goodwill everywhere.
How severe is the child labour issue in India?
It is estimated that one-third of the world's working children are in India. It means that nearly 50 per cent of the children in this country are deprived of their right to childhood and destined to end up as illiterate workers with no opportunity to fulfil their true potential.
Is it not true that poor families need their children's income for survival?
This is the classic 'poverty argument'. The tragedy of the child labour situation in this country is that it is simply assumed that every child labourer is working because it is an issue of survival for the family. This is the most insidious aspect of this dubious argument.
In rural areas there are full of examples of children belonging to very poor families who are in school and are relatively better than their counterparts who are working. A large number of factors such as tradition, ignorance of parents on account of illiteracy, lack of access to alternatives and insensitive administration have nothing to do with the economics that govern the decision of the family to send a child either to work or to school.
How is child labour and primary education connected?
MVF regards every form of work done by children as child labour. Any child not in school will sooner than later be put to work. In this model, there are only two categories of children - those who go to work (child labourers), and those who go to full-time formal-day school. This is the genesis of the 'MVF non-negotiable', that every child out of school is a child labourer.
MVF believes that by making a child a full-time student is the only way a child's right to childhood can be fulfilled. In the MVF model, therefore, securing a child his or her right to childhood, elimination of child labour and universalisation of education are all part of one process.
What exactly has been the experience of MVF in this regard? And how did the parents react?
In MVF's experience, almost all parents - even from the so-called poorest segment of the rural society - are not only keen on withdrawing their children from work and sending them to schools, but also are willing to make sacrifices in terms of money and time. Once parents realise that their child is capable of picking up studies, their confidence in the child's abilities grows. They no longer think in terms of sending the child to work. Far from worrying about the loss of income from the child's labour, they end up spending much more on the child.
What is MVF's strategy to achieve its goal?
Our strategy is based on age group and gender. Children in the age group nine to 14 years are run through a bridge course which utilises what they already know to enable them to catch up with regular school children of their own age. Younger children are admitted directly to government schools in their respective regions. In all cases, there is a detailed follow-up programme that ensures minimal dropout.
For the girl child, the approach is more intensive. The foundation has identified the need to deal with the older girl children through programmes aimed specifically to meet their special needs. MVF's experience has shown that much of the thinking on the issue of girl child labour is constrained by the exaggerated importance given to certain stereotyped roles assigned to the girls.
At another level, MVF has redefined the role of government schoolteachers by making them part of the community. These teachers have been drawn into a number of activities of MVF. They are associated with the enrolment drive, in conducting bridge courses and in training. These teachers are increasingly playing a much larger role than they have been doing all these years.
In how many villages does MVF work and how many children has benefited by its programme?
also see : www.mvfindia.org
MVF today works in 491 villages of Ranga Reddy district, Andhra Pradesh. It has so far withdrawn 1 lakh children out of work and retained them in schools. In 169 villages of the project area, all children in the age group five to 14 years are in school.