On dignity, trust and giving children their voice

23 06 2015

Kalpana is one of the most dedicated people I know. She wrote an amazing post for Aangan about what it means to be a support person for children who have suffered serious harm.

The Aangan Blog

Kalpana, right, talking with 3 community members in Wadala, Mumbai. Kalpana, right, talking with 3 community members in Wadala, Mumbai.

I have worked with children for 25 years now. A lot of it has been with extremely vulnerable children – those living in slums, those from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds, those who have been victims of crimes or have suffered trauma, those who have ended up in shelters and children’s homes. Many of these kids witness and experience far more than any child should, at an age where he or she should be in school and their lives should be free of every worry other than maybe homework.

The right to life with dignity is a fundamental right of Indian citizens, yet dignity is a word often far removed from these children’s lives. For these children, and their families, the struggle to survive in their day-to-day lives is so fraught that quality of life is a distant, dim consideration.

Young girls…

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#ActNow for Child Protection

12 06 2015

I take the local train to go to work every day. The most heart-breaking part of my trip is Mahim Junction. In this particular area, every day I see half naked kids sorting through garbage. They do hazardous work to help their families survive poverty. They work when they should be in school. They work when they should be playing. They work in the scorching sun of Mumbai, and they will probably work as much during the monsoon.

An ILO 2015 report says “there are 16.7 million (5-17 year old) children in child labour in South Asia, (…), and of these 10.3 million are in the 5-14 year age range. The young, 5-11 year-old children, make up about one-fifth of all child labourers in South Asia.”

According to the same report, at 5.8 million children, India has the highest rate of child labour in South Asia.

And this is not India’s only problem. I do not want to fill your head with statistics but I strongly believe these are important:

  • 1 out of 3 children face bullying in Indian schools. 1 in 2 children say that they have experienced emotional abuse; 65% experience corporal punishment. More than 50% of the children using the Internet were either threatened or harassed online. By the age of 15, 51% of girls have dropped out of school.
  • Child migrants are estimated at approximately 15 million. Over 3.25 lakh children went missing between 2011 and 2014, at an average of nearly 1-lakh children going missing every year. ~1.2 million children were trafficking victims, prostituted & enslaved throughout the country, including via child sex tourism.
  • Around 53% of children report having faced a form of sexual abuse. Of this number, more than half are boys.
  • India alone accounts for one third of the child brides’ global total. 22.5% of girls aged 15-to-19 face physical or sexual violence, a majority of it within their own homes.

Do you feel powerless reading this? Most of us do. I feel powerless every day in Mumbai.

At Aangan, we are trying to empower people to act when they see a child in distress. With a focus on “Making schools safer”, “Saying No to child labour” and “Being alert to child sexual abuse”, the child protection specialists at Aangan have put together a list of actions normal people can take when they see a child in distress. These are simple things, simple things that can change the story of a child.

Here are some examples from the Aangan website:

  • Making schools safer” – Check that your child’s school has a Child Protection Policy. It’s a minimum standard to ensure a safe environment and that protective systems are in place to address issues like harsh punishments, bullying, physical and sexual abuse and harassment of all kinds.
  • Saying No to child labour” – Start at home – how old are the people who work for you? Go a step further – talk to your family, your friends, your neighbours, and your housing society. Tell them to say NO to child labour too.
  • Being alert to child sexual abuse” – Pay attention to your child and his or her responses to the people around. Don’t make reporting it the child’s work. Everyone who has contact with children must be alert to and must respond to the cues children send.

Child protection is not just the government’s business, or something that NGOs do because they are NGOs. India is not the only place on earth where really bad things happen to children. So let’s open our eyes, look around and take action.

Learn more about what you can do if you see a child in distress at http://aanganindia.org/actnow

Follow Aangan on Twitter and Facebook for daily updates, regular people child protection stories, and more.

I am an iCats  Fellow with the Aangan Trust in Mumbai, India. As part of LGT Venture Philanthropy‘s support to scale proven local solutions, the ICats Program was established to provide additional know-how to social organizations. The program connects social organizations in need of professional know-how, and experts with the desire to apply their knowledge in a meaningful way, thus acting as “Impact Catalysts”. This is how the name ICats came about. Global corporations can integrate the ICats Program into their leadership development programs to promote responsible leadership through first hand experience.

This post was originally published on the iCats Blog.

World Day of Social Justice in Mumbai

23 02 2015

20th of February 2015 was the World Day of Social Justice. If you would have asked me 6 months ago about this day, I did not even know it existed. But then, 6 months ago I did not know that in February 2015 I will find myself in India again, working for a non governmental organization that addresses issues such as human trafficking, child labour and hazardous work, child marriage and abuse. 2015’s theme for the World Day of Social Justice was Ending Human Trafficking and Forced Labour. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO):

  • “Almost 21 million people are victims of forced labour – 11.4 million women and girls and 9.5 million men and boys.
  • Almost 19 million victims are exploited by private individuals or enterprises and over 2 million by the state or rebel groups.
  • Of those exploited by individuals or enterprises, 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation.
  • Forced labour in the private economy generates US$ 150 billion in illegal profits per year.
  • Domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and entertainment are among the sectors most concerned.
  • Migrant workers and indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to forced labour.”

I have been with Aangan for one week now . It was intense! In my third day I visited one of the institutions we work with in Mumbai, close to Sandhurst Road train station. I participated in a Shakti session and met 9 girls, 14 to 17 years old, who have seen way too much for their young age. While I was aware child marriage, human trafficking, child labour and slavery exist in our world, being so close to it was a slap in my face. I knew before I applied for my fellowship that Aangan is an amazing organization but how amazing it is I am just starting to see.

You are probably asking yourself what is Shakti? Shakti means “strength” in Hindi. It means becoming empowered and strong by getting the knowledge needed to act for your safety and future. To quote the description from the Aangan website about the program: “Through Shakti, adolescent girls are connected to a peer network; are supported and empowered to recognize risk and develop strategies to resist pressures of child marriage, dangerous work, and being pulled out of school; to access services; negotiate for themselves; articulate aspirations and take steps towards achieving their life goals.” Do you see now why I love this program already?

You will find on the Aangan website testimonials such as this one, who speak volumes about the impact of the program in disadvantaged communities in India: “Asha is my friend, we go to Shakti sessions together. When she came to me crying, saying her parents were forcing her to get married, I had to do something. So I went with other Shakti girls, spoke with her family and after much convincing, her marriage was stopped.”- R, 16, Varanasi

Women face danger, sexism, abuse and harm everywhere in the world. Too few find the power to speak up and defend themselves. In some communities the fault of being sexually abused is often placed with the victim, while the abuser walks free. The family is scared they will “lose face” so they don’t talk about it. It can affect the marriage prospects of their girls and people will ask if the act was somehow provoked by the victim. Other women have issues identifying risk, even physical abuse. They don’t know it’s illegal and when a family member is the abuser, husband or father, they are inclined to believe that the situation is normal. After all, the person that they should trust the most is the one harming them.

After finalizing Shakti, girls are able to:

  • Identify risk
  • Articulate safeguards and strategies about how they might prevent dangerous situations and keep safe
  • They have educational and vocational aspirations
  • They found support to cope with situations of gender discrimination, abuse, oppression, atrocities
  • They demonstrate negotiation skills around 3 key issues: child marriage, pressure to drop out of education and hazardous work
  • They can identify positive role models for school/work
  • They have the confidence to speak up and participate in family/home decision making
  • They have at least one person to confide in
  • They can affect change for community and self

You can read in the Shakti 2013 Impact Report how the girls in Hardasapur, Patna brought change in their community in a very unexpected way. Water is one of the things I always took for granted. The girls in Hardasapur had to take 3 trips a day to get water home. This was stopping them from attending school regularly and many of them had to drop out of education. Nobody wanted to hear about their dreams and aspirations. Their contribution to their families was to bring water and do the household chores.

During the Shakti sessions they realized a hand water pump in their community would change everything. The girls wrote an application, gathered signatures and approached the Ward Commissioner with their request. Sounds easy, right? But it was not! They faced a lot of ridicule from the community members, after all, they were “just girls, what could they do?” But the Ward Commissioner was impressed. The girls made sure to follow up with his office and, soon after, the pump arrived and it was installed. The girls could now go to school and their respect within the community grew. And this was just the beginning!

Another eye opening experience last week was participating to a training on India’s POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, held by Majlis Legal Centre. They are “a group of women lawyers and social activists committed to informing, educating and empowering women on their legal rights.” But more about this in my next blog!

I am an iCats  Fellow with the Aangan Trust in Mumbai, India. As part of LGT Venture Philanthropy‘s support to scale proven local solutions, the ICats Program was established to provide additional know-how to social organizations. The program connects social organizations in need of professional know-how, and experts with the desire to apply their knowledge in a meaningful way, thus acting as “Impact Catalysts”. This is how the name ICats came about. Global corporations can integrate the ICats Program into their leadership development programs to promote responsible leadership through first hand experience.

This post was originally published on the iCats Blog.

Small seller in the train from ‪Mumbai‬ central to ‪Bandra‬ He was no more than 7. I hope he has a family who loves him and takes care of him. Almost 21 million people are victims of forced labour as estimated by ILO! Of those exploited by individuals or enterprises, 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation!

Small seller in the train from ‪Mumbai‬ central to ‪Bandra‬ He was no more than 7. I hope he has a family who loves him and takes care of him. Almost 21 million people are victims of forced labour as estimated by ILO! Of those exploited by individuals or enterprises, 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation!

Passage to India

3 03 2012

Yes, life is good… A few months ago Hiranmay asked me if I found a good nice Indian restaurant in Brussels, close to the foodie experience I had in India… Well, there is a God 🙂 Last night I had an amazing dinner experience with my friends at “Passage to India”. The food is divine and the restaurant is right in my commune, so close to my house that I can’t believe I didn’t saw it since I moved to Brussels last July. It’s on “Chaussee de Louvain 223, 1210 Brussels” and they also have delivery 😀

The owner told us that he imports all the cheese and spices from India and I must say that even our very Indian friend Dipika approved of the merchandise 😀 Unfortunately Rach couldn’t join us but I am sure she would have loved the food too 🙂

Mutton Kashmiri and Mango Lassi

I totally recommend the Mutton Kashmir. I used to hate mutton. I discovered how good it can be in India and last night I just couldn’t help myself. It was heavenly good… Dipika vouches for the Channa Masala and the Mutter Panner and Rochelle for the Butter Chicken. I normally am willing to try out other dishes but I was so happy with my food, the Masala Chai and the Mango Lassi that I wasn’t willing to ruin the taste. The owner reminded me of the times in India when I was asked all the time how spicy I want my food. I remember everybody being concern back then with how much spice I could take… My dish was a sweet one, but he did ask the others how spicy they want the food.

Great service and great atmosphere… We will go there again and again… and again. Especially since they even have Kingfisher Beer 🙂

Here are more pictures 🙂

Gurgaon – Do I actually miss you?

10 06 2011

One of the friends I made in India posted this on his FB profile today: Gurgaon: Model City and Cautionary Tale. It brought back lots and lots of memories, mostly the good ones 🙂 I spent around 10 months of my life in Gurgaon and it was quite the experience. Take a look at the link if you want to get a small glimpse of what it’s like 🙂

At the beginning of the week I found out I will move to Belgium starting July. I dreamed about this moment since December 2008, I don’t know why but in a way it has always been my dream place. Accra, Ghana and Gurgaon, India have been, in a way, small stops in the process of getting there. Like I said in earlier posts, I always take the long way… And now that I found another great reason to move to Belgium for a while, I can take a moment to remember what helped in getting there 🙂

Anyway, after I found out about Belgium I spoke with some of my friends from India and I was telling H how much I miss my daily routine, the café latte from Barista, the butter chicken and the mushroom masala, the kulfi, Sarojini Nagar, etc. Most of all I miss the beautiful people I met there. There are so many good people there, friendly and helpful. So many times it happened that complete strangers offered to help. Ghana was also like that and I don’t feel I appreciated it enough at that time. Of course things like visits to FRRO kind of wiped out the good I found in other people but the great thing is that we do forget the bad 🙂

I am horrible at keeping in touch. That doesn’t mean I care less about the people or I think about them less. I just have big issues with writing emails and things like that. I am working on it though…

While I lived in Gurgaon it was pretty hardcore. Small things get to you; the traffic gets to you, the heat, and the people looking at you. But I dearly remember the huge fruit stands at the side of the road, the huge fancy buildings and the colorful rickshaws, the monkey that came visiting our apartment or that beef barbecue on A803 balcony.

I have so much to learn about life. I think, most of all I need to train myself at enjoying the moment more, without looking at the horrible details. I am dedicating the next 12 months for that. My blog will have a new theme: “what I enjoyed most today 🙂 “

Today, I enjoyed most this slide  Gurgaon: Model City and Cautionary Tale. It helped remember that I really had some wonderful moments in India and I can say it out loud… I miss it 🙂

Me happy 😀



Is this the end?

18 03 2011

maybe I should just wear sunscreen!

I am looking back with a somehow sense of pride. I really did things that not many people do. I took my life by the horns and I lived. I had ups and downs, I dreamed and had dreams killed… and I always hoped for the best…

I am 26 and I struggle all the time with the feeling that I haven’t accomplished enough for my age. I don’t have financial security and this is the main thing that is eating me alive. Just like everybody else… or almost everybody else, I want my own crib, a place where I can invest money and creativity and have it for more than 6 months or one year. I want to stop fitting my life in a 23 kg suitcase. I want more… I want security for a change.

In 2009, after spending 3 years and a half in the largest youth organization in the world having various roles, I decided to pursue an international career in communication. And what a ride has been since then… 2 countries, 2 continents so very different than anything I have ever experienced before. Looking back I can only feel love and excitement for Ghana, West Africa and respect for all the wonderful people that have influenced my career in India, Asia. They say that life is a journey, not a destination… mine was the coolest journey a young woman could have… with the good and the bad, with the emotion, with the hope and the fear… with everything that implies being utterly alone at the end of the day, facing who you are and what you want to become.

Is this the end? Has the time come for me to make up my mind, to grow up, make a decision and live with it? It’s never easy, is it? It’s not supposed to be… but sometimes I just wish I had it easier… more money for my studies, smarter decisions at the right time, loved ones in the worst moments. I want more days of feeling the luckiest person in the world… I want more days with interesting projects and creativity… I want more days with a full salary in my bank account… more days with my friends… I want more days of feeling carefree…

I am scared to come back to Romania and look for a job. I am scared I won’t find one… one that won’t feel like a job but like a blessing. I am scared I won’t feel the same enthusiasm I feel for my job here. I am scared the pessimism Romania is going through right now as a country is going to touch me and stain me forever. I am scared I won’t be able to adapt. I am scared of being one of the young people that has the responsibility to build a new Romania.

I am so tempted to postpone it, make another 23kg suitcase and fly to greener pastures. I don’t want to look back and see myself as another young woman that gave up on Romania and decided to be selfish and make a place for herself in another, better world. I don’t want to be that person that gave up on the country that helped her be the person she is today.

In the same time I don’t want my life to always be a struggle. I am looking at what my parents go to every day, at the amount of work they put in for the smallest benefits. I have never dared to ask them “Are you really happy?”; “Is your life how you dreamed it to be when you were 26?”; “Are you happy, not content, with the decisions you made?” I am scared of the answer. What if they aren’t?

I am looking at my friends that live in Romania, fight for it, and create opportunities for their fellow Romanians. I am looking at them and at their accomplishments and I feel so proud. I am sure it’s not easy for them although from the distance it may seem so. They make me feel optimistic because at the end of the day my country still has heroes. They are my age and they are fighters. They didn’t turn their back on their country and they believe in it…

Cheers to them, to the Romanians that make it happen for Romania! To the ones that believe it’s possible. I hope I will be one of you some day. I hope I will live not the feel the shame of a deserter but the pride of the one that fought for and believed in a better Romania.

At this point of time I don’t know… I remember one question that haunted me during my AIESEC experience. One of our partners, a former AIESEC member, asked us how many of us are or will be truly leaders… I don’t know… I don’t even know if I should hope to be one…

Feels good to be back :)

9 03 2011

I reached yesterday at 6:30 am and it felt good. Nothing much has changed in 2 months and looking out of the window of the yellow classic cab, I had a strange feeling of coming back home. Which is weird because India after the first 5 months spent here felt like a struggle… I am not very good at handling things I don’t like, I speak up about them and I am emotional… I can never focus on the bright side long enough :My blog was never supposed to be an objective point of view… Its all emotion emotion emotion!

India is a different experience for everyone but an experience everyone should have! It teaches you stuff and you see thing in yourself and around you that in a way you don’t want to know or acknowledge. Its a challenge. For me it was and I am aware that most of the times I didn’t handled it right but I am happy that from this point on I am a better individual… at least I hope I am 😛

I was thinking to make a list with all the things I should do… but how can I pack everything in 21 days? Over the past 5 years I got very good at packing but not that good.

I missed the food…. I realized it yesterday having lunch in the food court. It was so spicy I felt tears in my eyes. So so yummy, I said to myself that I will only have Indian food for the next 21 days 😀

The road in the front of the office is somehow under construction. I think they are working on bringing the metro line here. Which would be great and probably I will never see it 😦 The dust wasn’t as bothersome as it used to be, there is a big flower shop on the side of the road and lots and lots of papaya. This small city has one great quality. Its ALIVE!

I missed the office. Its colorful and full of beautiful people. Friends. Working from home for the past two months had definitely its advantages but being in the office it’s just wonderful. I missed the small talk and the smiles 🙂

It just feels good to be back 🙂

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