Dalit and Tribal Children’s Education Centres
In June 2017 UnionAID volunteer and NZEI Te Riu Roa staff member Gina Lockyer visited Tamil Nadu to evaluate the project run by the TNLU providing after school education to Dalit and Tribal Children. Here is her report from the visit.
“A better life for our children”
In a hall full of children, parents and community members, six children stand on the stage, ready for their special performance. They begin a dramatization of a scene all too common in Tamil Nadu, India.
A family sit around their sick father, who is unable work. They’re stressed about money. The mother calls on the manager of the nearby garment factory – who is smartly dressed, a tucked in shirt and trousers.
“Are there any jobs for my 13 year old daughter?” the mother asks.
In my capacity as a UnionAID volunteer, I took part in an evaluation of its Dalit Children Education Project in India run in partnership with the Tamil Nadu Labour Union.
To date, UnionAID, with support from NZEI Te Riu Roa, has donated $6000 per year for three years, covering most of the costs to run 9 evening education centres for Dalit children in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.
I had the privilege of visiting these 3 of the centres, run in the evenings in community halls, homes and on street sides of the quieter neighbourhoods. I interviewed the tutors, parents and heard from the children involved in the programme.
I discovered a transformative programme, a haven for children and their parents, spaces alive with activity and learning, facilitated by passionate and talented staff.
The children and whanau we met at the centres are known as Dalit, or ‘Untouchables’, because of the caste they have been born into. In India’s hierarchical caste system, they face exclusion, structural inequality and discrimination. As children they experience humiliation, harassment and abuse from upper caste teachers and classmates. As working adults, they face the same from employers, customers and government officials.
Caste, community and struggle are some things they have in common.
But there’s something else which brings this group together. They’re union.
Over our time in Madurai, I met with 300 union members, many of them parents. We would often finish our interviews with “What drives you to improve your working lives?”, “What impact has the success of joining in union had on you?”, “What are your hopes for the future?”
The answer was always “A better life for our children”.
The evening education centres bring this full circle. Union members’ children are also coming together and learning about their rights, their history, culture and the importance of education.
I first met with a group of passionate tutors, who spoke keenly of the children and the impact the programme is making on their lives. When I asked the tutors what their favourite part of their job is, one replied “It makes me really happy when I talk to a parent and they tell me how much their child’s grades have improved and how much better they are doing at home.”
Nothing is left to chance at this programme. Everything is purposefully planned and goals and vision is shared amongst the tutor team. Their focus is on play based, interactive and peer-to-peer learning. Meeting monthly, they review their programme and plan ahead, ensuring continuity across the centres. They also meet with parents and members of the community to identify how their programme can best meet the needs of their children. It’s a programme by Dalit people, for Dalit people.
The tutors are also a key liaison between home and school, speaking regularly to school teachers alongside parents. Keeping in touch with the teachers also means they can give extra focus is to areas the children need most help with in school. It’s clear from these interactions that the programme is building strong credibility amongst the local teaching community.
While assistance with their school work is part of programme, it also provides learning opportunities beyond what local schools can offer. Children who presented to us told of the extra opportunities the programme provides, of their love of the books they read there, the trips they take, the focus pursuit of interests like the arts and sports. They spoke of the topics they covered – the environment, labour rights, leadership and the stories of Dalit justice heroes.
They’re proud they can learn alongside their parents, as mums and dads learn to write their name for the first time. It’s nice for them to be able to help their parents read documents or a sign, one of the children says. With the centres’ open door and family focussed philosophy, parents who have missed out on their primary and secondary education can sit in on sessions too.
Whole families are benefiting from the work of the centres. I interviewed a mother who spoke on behalf of the parents gathered on our visit. She expressed clearly and passionately the impact the programme had on their children. Thanks to what they learn in the programme, children are maintaining healthy daily routines – without the nagging which parents all over the world can relate to!
Their children are making better choices about how they spend and save pocket money. Behaviour at school and at home is markedly improved. Homework and study is prioritised, and interests and passions are pursued. This was really important for a group of working parents who simply can’t offer all of this at home.
If proof was needed of the programme’s success, it can be seen in the amazing enrolment growth over the last 3 years. From starting with a goal of establishing 6 centres and enrolling 200 children the programme now has over 400 children regularly attending 9 centres. To meet demand the Tamil Nadu Labour Union staff and members used their own money to hire the extra tutors.
The programme is the pride of the staff and communities connected to the Tamil Nadu Labour Union. In our time in Madurai, we spoke with many people and heard about the huge challenges they face as they go about their working lives. “We want a better life for our children”, they repeated.
It is well managed, successful programmes like the Dalit Children Education Project which go a long way towards ensuring this.
The daughter reluctantly agrees to begin work at the garment factory. The working conditions are poor, she’s dropped out of school and she gets sick. A concerned work mate brings her home. The family realise that a garment factory is no place for a young girl.
The children close their play with a strong speech to the gathering community. “This should never happen to children. Work can be dangerous, managers can be cruel. Stay in school, get an education.”
The 5 year olds sitting in the front of the audience are captivated. They look earnestly at their older friends on stage, the messages registering.
I think this is a lesson they won’t forget.