Monthly Archives: January 2009

Waiting for Water

Stewart Botting is currently in Andhra Pradesh, India, as his Right Now Foundation helps C.P. Kumar of HEARTS India to build new homes for children orphaned by AIDS. At the epi-center of the Indian AIDS epidemic, Andhra Pradesh has the highest prevalence of HIV in the country.

Here is an excerpt from a letter Stewart sent to us supporters back home:

Everyone is waiting for water! What comes out of the taps at sporadic times of the day is brown.  There are power cuts in the morning and evening – though how that relates to the water I am not sure.  I hoard buckets of water to wash everything in from myself to pots and pans!  I plan my life around available buckets – is there enough to have a rinse after some exercise?  Is there water to slush the toilet in the morning, have a shower and wash the dishes?  Washing clothes becomes an art form in water preservation.  Water becomes a preoccupation for me, but nothing new to the village women who have always queued by the pump in the morning, who know about scarcity of every kind.

I am moved in these villages by the hardship of life and by the dignity of the people who have to endure it. They do not complain of their lot but they do at times ask for help if the conditions of their life have become overwhelming.  I am in the places to hear these stories when they happens.  I hear stories from grandmothers who in the course of the telling become tearful, such is their despair – these women never cry!  Their children are dead from AIDS. They have been left with the grandchildren but they have no money – they are barely capable of going to work in the fields as labourers, all the work available to them in these rural areas.  They had expected to be looked after by their children in their old age but now must try and be the providers.  Some battle on – but some simply can’t cope.

There are stories of suicide and murder, of men just leaving home one day and never returning, abandoning their wives who must fend for their children on her own.  Alcoholism is rampant and often part of the tale of woe. The men die young, poisoned by the local liquor, exhausted from a life of hard labour – they die in their forties and fifties – men in their sixties look like octogenarians, stooped and addled.  Seventy is a grand old age to be celebrated for reaching. There are suicides and many a tale of despair, especially among those with HIV.  Life is so precarious that any calamity can tip ones sanity over the edge. Hundreds of millions of lives are lived in this precarious manner – eight hundred million in fact – more than the whole population of sub Saharan Africa.

And yet still the kids run and laugh and wave! I am opening five children’s homes in the Nellore District of Andhra Pradesh in South East India,  small, intimate homes, not big unwieldy institutions.  I am trying to do the right thing by the children. I am trying to put them front and centre of the work.  I am being careful to ensure the children remain firmly rooted in their local context.  The homes are in small towns neighbouring the villages where the children come from – they are not removed from their environment and the extended family remain key in their lives.  In our homes, we can ensure they are literate and numerate, we can encourage abilities and channel them toward higher learning – they can be encouraged and nurtured in a way that makes them recognise that education is a way out of the cycle of poverty in which their relatives are trapped.

The other day I heard that an HIV woman, who was losing weight by the day and  whose HIV positive children we support on an HIV nutrition programme we run, committed suicide.  Had she done it, I wondered, so that her children would be taken into care?  No. Surely not?  And yet her dying wish was that her children should be taken to “Sir’s house.”

This all sounds overwhelming – and I paint a grim picture – but it does not feel like this – not least, because the kids are great and inject life with a simple unquestioning vitality – they just have energy and curiosity!  They are just themselves, little people, who muck in and get on with it and who seem as aware as the rest of us that life needs to be taken one step at a time, for no one knows what tomorrow brings.

And still, we are all waiting for water.

Go to the Right Now Foundation if you’d like more information or to help.

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The Lines of Tribe Shall Dissolve

ABC News Photo Illustration

ABC News Photo Illustration

It is a great day to be an American.
A new President, a new era for hope and change, a new chapter of history, is unfolding.

But it goes beyond our borders. More than being an American, I hope that others throughout the world feel the same pride and optimism that I feel today. It is a great day to be a citizen of this global world.

In his inauguration address, President Obama said:

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

Photo courtesy of Associated Press

Photo courtesy of Associated Press

I hope that these words prove true, and that we as a nation will embrace them. We ARE all one tribe, and I have personally experienced the great things that can happen when people reach across borders, cultures, races and religions to work together to ensure human rights. It is a new kind of world, a new kind of future, that we can give children in the United States, in India, and anywhere else in the world.

President Obama’s speech reminded me of the words of another great American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I thought how appropriate it was that these two days were together – MLK Day yesterday, leading into President Obama’s inauguration today. I think of Dr. King standing across the Mall on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on that day more than 45 years ago. It took almost half a century for Dr. King’s words to make it across that expanse to the Capitol, where today they became a reality.

I hope that reality does, indeed, travel outside our borders and go a long way toward making us all one.What happens in the United States affects what happens in the rest of the world – and just as much, what happens in the rest of the world affects us just as greatly.

The words that Dr. King spoke in a 1967 address in New York City, that I was reminded of this morning, are:

The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, ‘This is not just.”

I am proud to be American today – but more than that, I am proud to be a citizen of the world.

Slumdog Millionaire: A Voice for Children

If you have not yet seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, you’ve surely heard of it. One of the biggest movies of the year, it just swept the Golden Globes and looks poised to do the same at the Oscars. For good reason – it’s affecting without being affected, gives us great multi-dimensional characters, has phenomenal cinematography with brilliant India as its backdrop, along with a beautiful musical score. In addition, it has three of the most natural, appealing child actors to be seen on the big screen in a long time. If you haven’t seen the movie, I urge you to see it. I promise it’ll take you an hour after the ending to wipe the smile off your face.

This tale of life and love in the slums of Mumbai alternates between heartbreak and triumph. The story follows two brothers who live in abject poverty, whose lives are made even more difficult after they are orphaned. Following them throughout their childhood and into early adulthood – along with their friend Latika – we see them fight against exploiters, brothel owners, child abusers, and even each other, in their struggle to survive.

I spent a day as an “Un-Tourist” in these very slums of Mumbai – a place called Dharavi. I went with Deepa Krishnan, owner of tour operator Mumbai Magic. Immersing yourself in the real lives of ordinary people in a place traveled to is a unique experience, and one that can truly bring the spirit and culture of a place alive to the traveler.

Slumdog Millionaire captures this brilliantly and is a fantastic movie, that caused me at times to want to applaud and at times to cringe and shut my eyes. Despite its upbeat ending and “rags to riches” Hollywood/Bollywood mechanism, Slumdog Millionaire shows us a side of India, and a way of life, that millions of children struggle to survive every day. Orphaning, abandonment, homelessness, begging, working, being exploited and abused…this is real, daily life for hundreds of thousands of children in Mumbai alone.

The actors who play the characters at their youngest ages are themselves Hindi-speaking street kids, discovered by casting director Loveleen Tandan. This fact reminded me of the 1988 movie Salaam Bombay, a movie by Mira Nair that was also about street kids in Mumbai, and which featured a cast of actual street children. Nair went on to start a foundation, the Salaam Baalak Trust, with proceeds from the film, and today SBT assists thousands of street children in Mumbai and Delhi. I interviewed Nair’s mother, Praveen, in my book The Weight of Silence; Praveen started SBT with her daughter Mira.

Salaam Bombay has a grittier, more realistic feel without the rags-to-riches ending. While I love the Slumdog Millionaire movie, while watching it there did resonate in me a sense of reinforcement of just such fantasies that lead kids into street life in Mumbai all the time. While traveling India and researching for my book, I interviewed many social workers and child advocates who told me that thousands of children run away from home and catch a train to “Bombay” with fantasies of the movies or making it big in the glamorous city filling their head. Sadly, most of them fall prey to just such exploiters as those found in both these movies: traffickers, begging rings, brothel owners or factory recruiters. Many of them remain living in the railway stations in which they arrive, begging or scratching out a living by sorting through trash for recycling or other dangerous endeavors. You can read my story here about my day spent with just such railway boys in Mumbai.

The lesson I would like to leave about this movie is: please see it. Enjoy it. Revel with these kids when luck comes their way. But please, please – don’t forget the millions of others whose lives continue in poverty, abuse and despair.

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Can India Save its Working Children?

An 11-year-old child laborer washes dishes at a house in Siliguri, India. Photo courtesy of Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

An 11-year-old child laborer washes dishes at a house in Siliguri, India. Photo courtesy of Rupak De Chowdhuri

One of the most difficult challenges facing children in India is the controversial issue of work. Child labor continues to be abusive and exploitative of children, and millions are caught in its trap – by some estimates over one hundred million. Children are kidnapped, tricked and trafficked into all sorts of work, including the sex trade.

On the other hand, to simply outlaw and eradicate all children’s work across the board seems both unrealistic and not necessarily beneficial to every child in every circumstance. Some older children work in safe, decent jobs because the other option – not working at all – means an even worse fate, starvation. In a perfect world, no child would have to work. But there are gray areas in this issue.

I stumbled across a very interesting article published in Time Magazine in October 2007, about the problem of child labor in India. As the article depicts one type of situation:

Dinnertime finds the famous Haldiram’s restaurant in south Delhi noisy and crowded. The larger tables are taken up by affluent extended families, the very picture of upwardly mobile urban India — well-dressed grandparents, several stylish young couples, and a multitude of happy and excited children. On smaller tables nearby are the ayahs (child-minders), looking heartbreakingly out of place, not eating and waiting to be called on to deal with the kids when they get out of hand. More often than not, the ayahs are themselves children, barely in their pre-teens. Each makes less money each month than the family whose children she cares for will spend on dinner that night. She will never go to school, never acquire any skills that could get her any other form of employment when she’s older, and will spend her life eating leftovers and wearing hand-me-downs.

Employment of children in such occupations is not only heartbreaking; it is also illegal. The most optimistic prognoses of India’s economic growth story often rely on its huge “demographic dividend” — 35% of its 1.1 billion people are younger than 15. However, with millions of children not going to school and picking up no marketable skills, this huge reservoir of young people could well be a ticking time bomb of social unrest. 

The article quotes Farida Lambay of Pratham, whom I also interviewed for The Weight of Silence. Lambay cites a UNICEF initiative to get the hotel owners’ association to agree to refrain from hiring children, and her own organization’s campaign to get 4,000 housing societies to certify that no children were working in homes, as examples of success of the ban. “Overall, 19,000 children were rescued during the last year in Mumbai,” she says, adding, “It is a great beginning.”

Convention 182  is a legally binding, international agreement from the International Labour Organization to prohibit the worst forms of child labour. In less than three years, 132 countries had ratified the convention, and today the tally is 150 countries, making it the fastest ratified convention in ILO’s 82 year history – clearly demonstrating that support for the movement against abusive child labour is growing rapidly throughout the world.

However, as of April 2007, 14 of the 177 ILO member countries have still NOT ratified this crucial convention. These countries are Afghanistan, Burma, Cuba, Eritrea, Guinea-Buissau, Haiti, India, Kiribati (Republic of), Sierra Leone, Soloman Islands, Somalia, Timor-Leste, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

For More Information:

Read the Time Magazine article

Visit Pratham’s website

Visit the Global March Against Child Labor

Sign a petition asking the world’s leaders to keep their promise of protecting children