Children's rights: Protecting and empowering children in the slums 


Over the last few years, we have teamed up with our Indian partner organisation Prayatn to launch the Saksham Programme. Saksham is Sanskrit for "able" or "powerful". The campaign aims at promoting children's rights and improving the living conditions of marginalised families living in and around Varanasi. At the moment, seventy villages and thirty slum communities have been involved in the programme, making a difference to about 100,000 people.

Poverty is rife in the Varanasi area, and people lack state support, information and access to services. With our project, we want to tackle these problems at the root.

We are of course fully aware that it will take many years for major improvements to become tangible. However, we are delighted with the first small changes for the better that we have already achieved.

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The Saksham Programme follows a holistic approach, which means that we try at all times to involve all parties that are or should be concerned with the well-being of a child: the family, neighbours, the community and the state agencies. Changes for the better always begin on a small scale, say in a home, and they start to spread further. In this process, we will not lose sight of our commitment to "help to self-help". We guide and assist both children and adults through information and education, so that they learn how to better their living conditions and stand up for their rights.

Our large team of social workers is well trained for this task. In the course of the project, they are supported by specialists in various fields and are offered ongoing training.

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The main objectives of the Saksham Programme are best summarised as follows:

  1. Children's rights: We organise awareness and information campaigns on the rights of children in communities, establish children's forums where children have the opportunity to exchange their ideas and bring them to the attention of the adult world.
  2. Education: We ensure that children from poor families have better access to education by providing basic schooling programmes and by monitoring the quality of education provided by the local schools.
  3. Healthcare: We support the healthcare services in communities with additional staff and equipment and organise awareness campaigns on children's healthcare needs targeted at the poorest.
  4. Empowerment: We equip people with the basic knowledge, skills and tools that enable them to better master and improve their own living conditions.
  5. Inclusion of a children's rights agenda in various fields at all levels of government.

We have already taken a number of measures to achieve these targets:


I. Establishment of children's forums

With our assistance, we have established two forums in each village/community, focussing on "compliance with and enforcement of children's rights". While one forum consists of adults, the other involves children directly.

Children's rights forum for adults:
 At regular meetings, which are well attended by the villagers, we talk about children's rights and how they can be protected. Topics include education, health, women's rights, access to clean drinking water, road infrastructure, electricity and lack or inappropriate allocation of state aid. During these sessions, people can voice their concerns and are listened to. We also provide information to further increase the awareness for children's rights.

Based on these meetings, further discussions and a number of concrete tasks were put to the community, our project managers identified the persons most suitable to assume a leading role in relation to children's rights within their community. To prepare these persons for their tasks and responsibilities, we offer them special training aimed at enabling them to continue the project work within their communities in the long term without our continued assistance.

The people in the villages are very grateful for the assistance we can offer them at the moment, and most of them realise that they are given a great opportunity here. It is therefore not in the least bit difficult to motivate them to take action, as the examples below illustrate:

The chairpersons of the forums visited schools and day care centres to find out more about the standard of education provided by these institutions. They also promised to monitor the situation regularly. Thanks the new awareness gained through our programme, parents have begun looking at their children with new eyes, are more aware of their responsibility for their well-being and ensure that they attend school more regularly.

In some villages, our leaders try to intervene where they see children being mistreated. They also attempt to change attitudes within their community with regard to child marriage and child labour. They decided for instance to report parents who still engage in arranging marriages between children to the authorities.

In other villages, the forums have been organising campaigns and demonstrations against alcohol abuse and gambling. These are pressing issues, as heavy drinking – by men and women – even during the day, is widespread in some of the slums. Often, parents are too drunk to look after themselves, or their children.

The continued support and training by our social workers enables the forums to develop a better understanding for certain problems and to initiate effective campaigns, which in turn create an even greater awareness for the issues they want to tackle.

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Children's rights forum for children:
This forum finally gives children the chance to express their thoughts and feelings, and to share them with other children. Within their forums, it is of course the children who take the decisions. They are however in close contact with the adults' forums.

They organise many shared activities and meetings, whereby the focus is always on fun, creativity, games and good company. During these events, children also learn in a playful way about the importance of regular school attendance and a good education. In addition, they are taught in basic personal hygiene and health care.

With the assistance of our workers, the forums organised topical games, short plays, dance and song performances that involved all persons who attended the events, strengthened the bond between them and inspired them to tackle new tasks.

During our project work, we want to ensure that the children's forums become important bodies within the village communities that cannot be ignored. Through our work with the groups, we increase the awareness for issues that are vital for the further development of the villages. Among the topics we discuss are immunisation, education (particularly for girls) and other issues closely related to children's rights.

We are very happy with the progress made so far. Since the establishment of the forums, the school attendance by children from our villages has for instance increased significantly.

In some of the villages, children involved in the forums have even organised a special room where they can study, and we now provide additional tuition for all who need it for two hours a day.

II. Social mobilisation and increased awareness for children's rights

Through demonstrations, we have galvanised the attention of the wider public and can now work step by step towards a greater understanding of the rights of children. During these events, children and adults involved in our forums marched through their village, holding up placards and chanting slogans. Many villagers who had not been previously involved in our project joined them spontaneously.

The protest ended with the performance of a short play and dancing and song competitions. The ideas and schedules for the protest days were drawn up by a team of experts together with the children. The plays revolved around the topics of child marriage, dowries and child labour. At the next village meetings, these issues were discussed in more detail, and there was a marked change in attitude of many participants.

III. Government Community Interface – involvement of government agencies

In most rural areas, even the most basic services in healthcare and education are very difficult to access, which has of course devastating effects on the well-being of the children growing up in these remote regions. Many villagers are intimidated by state officials, lack information about their entitlements and often do not know who to approach if they need assistance. To change this, we have established the Government Community Interface, which is a platform where villagers meet representatives of state agencies and local public bodies. During their meetings, all participants gain a better understanding of the needs and concerns of the other parties. Villagers feel free to speak about their needs and make concrete demands. We hope that these frank and open exchanges will motivate state officials to tackle the problems on the ground rather than ignoring them. In the long run, we hope that these meetings will lead to a close partnership between the administration, the community and its people, resulting in substantial improvements for the families and children in the villages. In our experience, government officials are willing to cooperate in this initiative. They have already made a number of useful and practical suggestions and promised to offer greater help to rural citizens.

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IV. Healthcare

Saksham works hard to close the gap between the health needs of the children and the available healthcare services. Through the mobile health camps, the organisation provides basic medical services for all. At the same time, Saksham has taken action to ensure that the public health system takes on more responsibility.

In June 2009, mobile health camps were provided for five villages and three slum communities. The team examined and treated 645 sick people, of which 253 were children. As part of the treatment, villagers were instructed in basic health protection and the importance of hygiene. As a direct result, they began immediately to drain their sewerage ditches and remove rubbish from the streets.


Accounting and controlling

The children's rights initiative is supported by Ernst & Young the global accountancy and auditing firm. Ernst & Young India has been appointed project auditor and has been monitoring the budget and spending since day one.


Prayatn - our partner organisation

Prayatn was established in 1992. It takes its name from the Hindu word for effort and is a voluntary, non-religious, not-for-profit organisation. Prayatn receives funding from the Indian government, international agencies and a number of NGOs.

The work of Prayatn is based on the principle that no person should be treated as a passive recipient of charity, but must be empowered through knowledge and skills so that he or she can escape poverty and social disadvantages through his or her own efforts.

Prayatn pursues a number of concrete objectives:

  • Empowerment of the individual, especially of disadvantaged groups in society, women and children.
  • Promotion of involvement of marginalised people in their local community, leadership training for ordinary citizens and support of appropriate initiatives at community level.
  • Greater social and economic justice within the wider society through structural change.
  • Better understanding of political activities and participation in grass-root initiatives.

The list of successful children's projects launched by Prayatn is long:

These are just a few examples of their work:

  • Primary school education for girls in 150 villages in Rajasthan.
  • Improvement of the health and educational situation of the children of brick kiln worker in the villages of Rajasthan.
  • Provision of alternative education schemes for disadvantaged children in Rajasthan.
  • Support of a women's cooperative fighting violence against girls and women in 100 villages in Rajasthan.
  • Action plan for the treatment of diseases caused by malnutrition of children of three and four years of age.
  • Organisation of regular immunisation campaigns in 94 villages in Rajasthan.

These projects were initiated with the support of a variety of organisations, such as UNICEF, Hope for children Indore, the District Primary Education Programme Dholpur, the Indian Ministry for Health and Family Welfare, Actionaid Jaipur and many others.