Head helps to save the children

21st January 2011 at 00:00
Retired primary leader takes her expertise to India on a charity mission, and witnesses efforts to improve children's education

I have just returned from a 10-day visit to India - New Delhi, Jaipur and Mumbai - to look at some of the projects set up by Save the Children.

In India, 2 million children die every year - more than in any other country. On the streets of New Delhi, with the stench of rubbish into which long-haired black pigs poke around, there are flies everywhere and people live in appalling conditions. It is easy to understand why disease keeps spreading.

Save the Children has set up drop-in centres for street children. There, they receive a basic education, a daily meal and health care. The one we visited was in the midst of a ramshackle area, but it was effective.

The risk of India's poor children dying is 300 times greater than for rich people. Save the Children wants to bridge that gap, so its mobile health clinic comes to those who need it most. A clinic will visit 10 different shanty towns in the north west part of the city each week. In the clinic are two doctors, a midwife and a pharmacist.

Children in India have the right to schooling up to the age of 14 but, in reality, the majority of slum children cannot access this. In the village of Nayagaon in Jaipur, Save the Children has set up a school for 158 children with two teachers. The villagers have set up a council and meet with Save the Children and officials regularly to discuss local issues. The children initiated and formed a school collective - like a school council. They wanted good teachers and they persuaded the other village children to attend school.

When we arrived in the village, the children were all sitting in a circle singing: "Education is our right. We are not begging. Education is our property, it is our right. We will fight for it." This project has given these children and the villagers a platform from which to try to improve their situation.

The last few days were spent in Mumbai slums, which are characterised by chronic malnutrition, high mortality rates, poor hygiene, congestion and inadequate services.

We visited Shivaji Nagar. It is built on a rubbish tip and, as the rubbish settles, so people build homes on it. The whole slum is home to 600,000 people. There is no sanitation or running water. A private company provides large containers of water. People pay approx 35 rupees for a large jug full. If they don't earn that day, they cannot buy water.

We visited a nutrition centre where children get a balanced meal and supplementary feeding; 400 severely malnourished children are fed each day in this small dark room. The mothers cook the food which is supplied by the charity.

Save the Children runs a creche here where the children are safe. It was so simple - a small hut, some food and a health worker to provide very basic education. But it has a huge impact on the lives of these children.

In a narrow lane strewn with rubbish is the small health centre which covers 644 households (about 34,000 people); from here, they can access the services to which they are entitled, such as free medicine, food supplements, ante- and post-natal care and baby monitoring.

It was an amazing visit and, in spite of appalling poverty, Save the Children is making a difference to the communities involved by setting up projects and by empowering the communities with the knowledge they require to sustain and improve the quality of their own lives. Nothing is impossible if the will and dedication is there.

Anne Strang, a retired primary head, has been a volunteer with Save the Children since 1984. She is available to give presentations to schools on the work of the charity. Email anne.strang@ntlworld.com

scoted@tes.co.uk.

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