“Lydia Didi!!” (Lydia sister) Come and see our play! ” screeches one of the beaming AVANI students in Kolhapur, India. But the play I am about to witness is nothing like one I would attend for my own children in Rochester, NY. The scenes of this play, taking place under the hot sun 200 miles south of Mumbai, represent harsh snapshots, re-enactments of experiences these children faced daily trapped in a cycle of poverty, exploitation, and child labor.
I recognize many of their faces from my visit last December, the older ones looking more and more like men and women. Our GoPhilanthropic group traveled with Arun and Tushar Gandhi to learn firsthand about their multi-pronged vision and plan for combatting child labor in the region. Working alongside AVANI, the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation and the Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute have plans to build a Memorial School, a learning and vocational facility for exploited children and their parents. But in addition to setting foot on the verdant rolling hills that will be the site of the new school, our group wanted to fully understand the mix of variables that created the context for child labor. The experience last year had me wanting to know more, to commit on a deeper level, so I return.
This principle of “understanding first” and “philanthropy second” represents the core mission of GoPhilanthropic – a socially-conscious P2P (people to people) organization I founded devoted to connecting individual and small groups with inspiring grassroots projects worldwide. This active and engaged form of philanthropy provides an experiential component to giving, ultimately providing a more educated vantage point from which to offer support. The act of going in person and exchanging, not just by writing a check, but in offering something of ourselves, our attention and our genuine understanding of the work that is being accomplished, is a powerful alternative to traditional philanthropy.
I glance at Sunil, one of the eldest at AVANI, who served as a child laborer for a brick manufacturer carrying one thousand bricks daily, six days a week, from a kiln to a truck. Rising at 4 am without breakfast, Sunil would walk to the job site where he worked in the hot sun for 9 hours. This would earn him 35 cents a day and provide two meals for his parents per day, his father being too handicapped to work. Sunil developed a flat head over the years as well as horrific headaches as a result of putting such heavy pressure on his head every day. Now at AVANI, Sunil dreams of becoming a teacher.
The children have put their heart and soul into the performance, sweating under the boiling sun–their pride visible as they stand, shoulders back and straight after the final act.
Anuradha Bhonsle, AVANI’s school director and regional women’s and child’s right activist, ends the performance by speaking directly to the children. Her loud and passionate voice bounces off the small school building walls, her arms motioning widely in the air.
“We must not see ourselves as victims. It is society’s mentality that is responsible for this , the whole system is responsible. The parents, the government, industry – we are all responsible and we all must change,” she yells.
For over a decade Anuradha has fought to end the scourge of child labor. I would learn over the coming days that the ugly sequence of poverty and child exploitation that AVANI and GWEI have committed themselves to wrestling–are a multi-layered blend of issues involving caste, a male dominated culture and tradition, and a lack of women’s access to information on their rights. It wasn’t simply about whistle-blowing. The key to a better future would involve a monumental push to educate at all levels–the industry owners who employed the children, the government officials who were lax in upholding the laws that prevented child labor, and last but not least, educating the parents who oftentimes forced their children to work.
Anuradha explains to me during our bumpy rides out to the villages that much of the problem boiled down to a lack of women’s empowerment. In order to end child labor we would have to reach the women, the mothers. So many remained imprisoned by ignorance, locked in a world where their options for survival meant sending their kids to work. There were laws that protected, supported, and provided them financial assistance, but few knew they existed. Anuradha has become a determined change-agent, set on informing first, then empowering. She now had a network of 1600 women who are actively building better lives for their families. The school the Gandhi’s are working towards would then provide various learning opportunities needed to begin to climb the first rung out of poverty. Progress would require a delicate dance between activism, empowerment and education.
After the play Anuradha takes me by the arm to show me the progress they have made at the school since my last visit. Our group had pooled some funds to support various needs. “See the water tanks,” she says as she guides me around the garden corner, pointing to massive black catchment tanks.
“And here is the other one, ” she says excitedly. “We had no way to keep the grains dry during the monsoon season. We had so little to begin with and then there was waste. Now everything is dry, “ she smiles. I peek into the bins, holding rice, grains, dried lentil and chick peas…
Stepping over lines of children eating their lunches cross legged on the floor, we continue into a small room no bigger than a closet. She shows me a wall lined with lockers “Remember how we told you we needed a place for the kids to put their individual things? Well look – now it is all organized and each child has a private place to store things. This may seem like a small detail but to a child who does not have much to call their own, it’s a precious gift.”
“And that’s not it Lydia. You must come,” she says.
Bringing me to the front of the house she points to a small solar panel propped on the roof. “Now we have lights at night,” she beams, “and the children can study after dark.”
I am floored at how far the funds went. More importantly though, I begin to grasp the true value of these simple basics. We, in our worlds of have-everything, really have little appreciation of the profound significance of these luxuries–electricity for reading at night, dry rice, a place to put our few precious things , a system for collecting water…
The days I spent in Kolhapur were deeply moving. As we so often see with our philanthropic travelers, the “donor” returns home humbled and inspired by those we have met – they are not so different from ourselves. We come home realizing that it is time to sit across global kitchen tables with cups of tea and listen to each other, working together to solve our problems. For all those who are interested in he Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute’s mission to help the children and families caught in the cycle of poverty and child labor, I urge you to go and see for yourselves what it is all about–and to play an active role in being a part of the solutions.
Lydia Dean – Founder/President