The Poverty-Education Link


He Should be in School
He Should be in School

For millions of children, daily life is simply a struggle to survive. The difference that an education, literacy and competence in English makes in the future of a child cannot be overestimated – especially a marginalized or vulnerable child.

For millions of children, daily life is simply a struggle to survive. A poor child in India is three times as likely to die before his fifth birthday as a rich child. UNICEF says, “Millions of children make their way through life impoverished, abandoned, uneducated, malnourished, discriminated against, neglected and vulnerable. Whether they live in urban centres or rural outposts, they risk missing out on their childhood – excluded from essential services such as hospitals and schools, lacking the protection of family and community, often at risk of exploitation and abuse.”

UNICEF identifies the root causes of exclusion as poverty, weak governance, armed conflict and HIV/AIDS, naming these as among the greatest threats to childhood today. Not only do children suffer damage from which they may never fully recover, but they are at much higher risk of being exploited, neglected, trafficked or abused. The repercussions are felt beyond individual children – entire countries struggle when citizens are poorly educated or ravaged by disease, resulting in stunted economic development and leaving countries vulnerable to instability and even armed conflict. This creates a vicious cycle which deepens and perpetuates poverty, generating a ripple that affects other countries and eventually spills over to the entire global village.

Many children in India are invisible right from birth. Less than half of all births are registered; in the rural areas, three out of four children are not registered at birth. In this way they are denied even a legal identity. Although this may seem a mere formality, the repercussions can be enormous. Children who are unregistered at birth are invisible in official statistics and later in life may be denied access to schools, hospitals, banking, voting and other fundamental rights.

Poverty and income inequality clearly increase children’s vulnerability to many debilitating factors: malnutrition, disease, childhood death, illiteracy, labor, trafficking and loss of parents or home. Children are too often orphaned by treatable diseases such as malaria, TB, polio, tetanus, worms, and simple diarrhea. More than two million children themselves die every year from such preventable infections. One of every three of the world’s malnourished children lives in India, and about 50 percent of childhood deaths there are attributable to malnutrition or starvation.

In Mumbai, I flitted in and out of two separate Indias. One is on the streets, right up front - the beggars, the pavement dwellers, the slums, the street children, the tiny laborers who pick through the litter for recyclables when they should be laughing on a playground. It’s noisy, in your face, assaulting you.

The other India is cocooned behind all this, tucked away from it. This India is one of quiet, air conditioning, service, amenities, middle and upper class people living their lives much as the wealthier live their lives anywhere. Doctors, professors, engineers, computer programmers. They live in beautiful gated homes or modern flats and spend evenings in premier restaurants and hip, trendy nightclubs with loud techno music and drinks that cost what they would in New York or London.

British journalist Dan McDougall wrote in The Guardian, “If India’s biggest city is seen by economists as its great hope, Mumbai also embodies most of the country’s staggering problems. The obstacles hampering India’s progress – poor infrastructure, weak government, searing inequality, corruption and crime – converge in Mumbai like nowhere else. Here, where £4m penthouses look over filthy slums, India’s class divide is at its starkest.”

Mostly, the two Indias exist separately from each other, as if each half is unaware of the other side’s existence. Sometimes, however, they clash - happening more and more every day - in social upheaval that demands change, reform, equality. And there are those who move between the two Indias, quietly and diligently working to make that change happen - particularly in the area most likely to impact long-lasting changes in the social fabric of the next generation: children.

The difference that an education, literacy and competence in English makes in the future of a child cannot be overestimated – especially a marginalized or vulnerable child. In Mumbai I meet Tina Vajpeyi, Chief Financial Officer of an organization called Akanksha, an educational non-profit that works primarily with underprivileged children who live in these slums to impact their education and futures. The organization began 17 years ago with 15 children and today serves 2,600 children in 55 program centers and another 2,100 in school settings.

I meet Tina at the Akanksha center located in the Nehru Planetarium. She is clearly from the other India – she and her husband have lived in London and Hong Kong, only settling in Mumbai within the last decade. Yet she is one of many I have met who gravitate between the two, using her world to empower another.
As we walk into the center teachers are working with two groups of children from the nearby slum, who sit in orderly circles intently listening and participating in the lessons. These children come for two and a half hours of additional schooling each day, particularly in English and mathematics, after their regular school day. “The mastery of English is the key to open up their future,” Tina says.

The basic idea is to use resources that are underutilized. Much of the supplies are donated, volunteers do most of the teaching, and free medical care and health camps are provided by local doctors. Of the paid staff, most of them are part-time teachers who are mothers themselves in the local communities the students come from. In this way Akanksha is able to achieve a unique community partnership as well as empower women and girls. Female students of the program marry an average of two to three years later than other girls in the area.
Tina tells me the government-run schools are horribly ineffective. Even schools that purport to be English standard often teach less privileged children in Hindi instead of English. Less than 2% of students make it to the 10th standard, according to Tina - and of those who do, many are still illiterate.

Akanksha began with a simple concept by 18-year-old university student Shaheen Mistri. There were thousands of slum children who needed and wanted to be educated. There were thousands of college students who had the energy, enthusiasm and time to teach. There existed pockets of available spaces in ideal teaching environments. The idea then, was to bring together the three - kids, student volunteers and spaces- to provide a better education for less privileged children and to help keep them in school.

Looking around me in the Nehru center, I can see the progress and difference that this small vision with a lot of perseverance and hard work has made. The children here are plainly eager to learn. They linger after class is over, chatting with their teachers or me, in no hurry to leave.

I meet Ravi, an energetic 17-year-old who is extremely bright and articulate for his years; he carries himself with the confidence of an adult who knows where he is going in the world. Ravi is full of brilliant ideas and is already training to be a social worker. He has appeared for his finishing exams and will begin his first year of college the next semester. He plans to obtain his bachelors of social work and then his masters degree.

“Akanksha was my reincarnation,” he proclaims. “I want to work with families to help them get the services they need. People need help asking for social assistance and reporting problems to government. My biggest hope is to become a good person who has a sensitivity to society.” His passion for the work shows through and he has a tremendous knowledge of the field even at his young age, explaining the Right to Information Act to me. Ravi has already completed two years of mentoring and internships at the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Manavsadhne. He would like to work on issues such as HIV/AIDS and the child marriage and dowry system. I have no trouble believing he will accomplish everything he sets his mind to.
“Akanksha has inspired me,” says Ravi. “They find out what you’re interested in and they help get you on a path for that.”

As I leave Akanksha, Tina walks with me fifty paces from the Nehru Planetarium to point out the slum across a small canal where the students come from. It is family living on top of family in squalor. The sturdier homes have sheets of tin held down with rocks as roofs, while others have simply pieces of plastic. There is no running water. The canal is a rancid, stagnant, brackish water filled with trash and sewage.

All of this is within a hundred yards of the pristine Nehru Planetarium and the modern 20-story office building shaped like a cylinder rising up beside it, surrounded by lush landscaping and acres of emerald green grass. The sprinklers are blithely running in the middle of the hot day. I wonder what the slum residents must think when they look across the canal, separating them as if by eons, at the precious water being poured so diligently into the ground.

Poverty intertwines with many other social issues to negatively impact children – the caste system, lack of education, limited access to vaccinations for easily prevented diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis and a skeletal public health infrastructure. The biggest hurdle to such change is the way poverty is defined, according to Jayanth Vincent, Director of Media Relations for World Vision India.

“Poverty is not a line that can be drawn so easily,” he tells me in a noisy restaurant in Chennai where we meet. It’s not defined simply by money. The widely-accepted global yardstick of extreme poverty as living on an income of less than a dollar per day needs context in order to be meaningful. Related aspects such as cost of living must also be taken into consideration; a dollar in the United States, for example, likely has the purchasing power of ten to a hundred times that amount in India. Even within India, the difference between that same dollar in a small rural village and an expensive urban area such as Mumbai or Chennai is vast.

As Jayanth adds, poverty is also about a dearth of other non-monetary resources such as knowledge, opportunities, empowerment and human rights. Among many who live on the meager razor’s edge of existence, children themselves are seen as resources. “It’s a lack of knowledge about the rights of children. People being aware of these rights makes a huge difference. It’s about transforming all of us – not just the poor. We must bridge that gap between the affluent and the very poor.”

He explains World Vision’s “five fingers” approach to bridging that gap. The affluent have access to five vital resources that the poor do not: Information, know-how, technology, markets and credit. Those with access to such things which are often taken for granted – the invisible privileges – must build the capacity to enable others to access such privileges, for they equally have rights to them as well. It’s not about giving something as a hand-out, but about empowering people to access those resources to which they already possess rights. The first is what Jayanth calls the Transactional Model, a charity-based approach in which the well-off give but expect something in return. Often that is gratitude, or a feeling that recipients are behaving or living their lives in the way the givers dictate. The model that World Vision advocates is the Transformational Model, in which both sides partner together for real change.

“Poverty is not so huge that eradicating it is something that can’t be done,” he contends, if those in power really made an effort to do something about it. “We can build a nation, and a world, that is fit for children.”

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