I blog for Change…

As I attempt to orient the windy and often treacherous roads that encapsulate life, here are some of my thoughts on the successes, failures and ultimately the hope and positivity in which I strive for a better world. I also hope that I can use this blog as a platform to elevate the social justice issues that are somewhat forgotten in the modern discourse of staying silent on issues that challenge. Sx


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Invisible Children & their fight for inclusive education

Regardless of whether or not you are a development aficionado or a relative laymen to the global development context, you would have heard of the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs which were set for achievement by 2015. The Goals consisted of a set of targets in an attempt to end global poverty. One of the targets that was the most synonymous with the possibly for change was the MDG#2: Achieve Universal Primary Education. At the time, it seemed like the only precursor for achievement of this target was around boosting education institutions and quality training of teachers in developing countries. However, the results which were seen at the end of the 2015 deadline suggested that the necessary levels of inclusion within primary education, especially in relation to girls and children with disabilities had not been considered or factored into the process; as a direct consequence of this, the goal had all but failed.

As I travel around the globe I continue to see the same patterns when it comes to children with disabilities and their attempt to access basic education. In most cases, children are either so badly stigmatised and discriminated against in their context that they are societally unable to access education or there are no flexible learning options available for them to access. When we think about access to education it’s difficult to see beyond the parameters of merely the physical aspect of accessibility; which in itself is a difficulty. I have consistently heard stories in India on my travels of children with physical or mobility disabilities being unable to attend school because the classrooms are inaccessible to their wheelchairs or mobility aides. Of course, this is easily fixable, the installation of ramps and handrails can be inexpensive and easy to install. However, these aren’t the only barriers of access to education which children with disabilities have to face each and every day of their lives.

Consider if you will, a child with a visual impairment. How would this child access his/her school? How would he/she get to school? When he/she enters his/her classroom, how would he/she know where to sit? When his/her teacher starts conducting classes and using the blackboard for the daily lesson, how would he/she know what was being taught? When his/her teacher referred the class to the relevant lesson and activity within the associated textbook how would they learn without being able to see this learning module? Beyond just the classroom other barriers also exist, such as: what would happen when this child needed to use the restroom? Will there be accessible toilets around? How would this child find their way to these toilets when the only form of signage is visual? How would this child be protected against abuse when accessing such community toilets which are 500m’s away, due to the school not having toilets of their own?

The above are all questions associated with the daily experience of children living with disabilities and attempting to exercise their basic human right of access to primary education. In most cases, the parents of these children give up and choose to keep their children at home due to the difficulties associated with access and learning. We’re now talking about an entire generation of children who are able to learn and contribute to society through turning their education into income generation vocations, being crowded out of the process completely. These issues while rampant in developing nations are not just experienced solely in these areas; if you were to investigate a little further, one would find they are just as common in ‘developed’ nations such as our own. The truth about the theory of inclusion is that, we’re not fairing so great on the pursuit or practice of it. The MDG’s complete black out when factoring in children with disabilities in their universal education goal is proof of this. Unfortunately, on most occasions, and apparently even on the global stage, these children remain invisible to the goal of ending poverty. Until we begin to understand that including those who are marginalised and at the very peripheries of society are key to changing the world for the better, no lasting change will ever be achieved. So next time you consider who is accessing opportunities and how to invest in making this endeavour better, look beyond the obvious and think about those who are unable to even reach the point of access in the first place.

Sx

 

*Image courtesy of CBM India

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Life of a Development Worker – The fight for equality in Mathura

My second visit to India this year took me to 2 remote and rural districts of the state of Uttar Pradesh in the country’s north. As I travelled out to Mathura on a dry, hot and dusty day I found myself gazing out the window in search of intricacies associated with the local terrain. I was in short, attempting to idle my time away by people watching which is an activity that I very much enjoy partaking in, especially when I am travelling. The most striking detail of the surrounding scenery for me was the sheer lack of women that I saw. As each and every street and laneway went by I was being presented with men in many groups embarking on the daily aspects of their lives. I witnessed the haggling over products at local market places, the breakfast ritual of sipping on chai at roadside stands and the daily commute between home and religious meeting place; all undertaken strictly by men. The one question that remained on my mind was where are all the women?

I found the answer to this query not long after I posed it. As we began to enter into the interior part of the villages I spotted dots of colourful saris in the fields where wheat was being produced and cropped. I had to strain my eyes to see pockets of women bent in half conducting the back breaking labour of cultivating these crops. As we drove past I tried to catch the eyes of these women but found the endeavour almost impossible. The women within the fields had their entire faces covered by the material of their saris and were attempting to peer out of a small hole for one eye which they had allocated. I immediately wondered how they were able to see, let alone go about such laborious tasks with this obvious impediment in their way. When I enquired about the reasoning for this strategic placement of material I was met with the answer that, it is seen as culturally inappropriate for women to show their faces outside their household. How utterly impractical I thought…

As we arrived in the village I ventured past a shelter for the local communities animal husbandry activities which we had funded through our project and was led to thatched roof structure where around 50 members of the local community had all gathered. I came to understand that this was a meeting of the local Disabled Peoples Organisation, more commonly referred to as a DPO which was responsible for advocating for the rights of people with disabilities within this community. As commonplace in most remote villages, the men and women present were separated not only by proximity but also by different carpets and mats which were laid out on the floor for them. As is a tradition for me whenever I embark on these visits I attempted to speak with the women of the village and try to connect with their stories. On this occasion, the endeavour was complicated by not being able to see into their eyes and their refusal to speak in the presence of men who were not their family members. I knew I had to change this set up in some way and requested to meet solely with the women in an attempt to discuss the activities that entailed their daily lives. Lucky for me, this technique worked and my life was forever changed by the stories they told and the struggles I heard about.

I was completely taken aback at how young the women were who were sitting in front of me. Most had been married at the age of 14 or 15, had their first child at 16 and were permanently disabled at this time due to complexities of child birth and producing children at such a young age within a rural setting. I was interested to learn how many children these women had borne and what proportion of them were girls. The answers were as heartbreaking as they were shocking. It was at this time that the stories of female foeticide and infanticide began pouring out of these women’s mouths. One lady, in a beautiful woven maroon and gold sari spoke through tears of the 2 daughters she had lost as a result of the son preference ritual in this area. Another spoke of how family planning was not a possibility as her husband refused to allow her to stop producing until she had borne him a son. As I sat with these women and listened to their stories, I couldn’t imagine the struggles they went through in an attempt to have a say over their own bodies. Surely this is the most basic human right there is, and yet prior to even reaching adulthood these rights were stripped away from them.

After hours of hearing similar stories from each and every woman present, I wanted to know if our project’s activities had gone any way towards influencing attitudinal change with regards to the plight of women in the village. When I posed the question of what hope these women had for their daughters I didn’t expect the answers I would receive. The women reported that since the project had begun conducting awareness training on rights of the marginalised, the women had managed to stop the practice of child marriage in the community. They had also been successful in lobbying the men of the village to see the importance of educating girls in order to promote more income generating activities for families and households. The women told me of how they hoped that their daughters would become educated and pursue vocations outside of the traditional housewife and mother spectrum.

As I looked into these women’s faces I began to understand what true resilience encapsulates. I saw the determination in their eyes and knew that they would lead the fight for the rights of their daughters, nieces and younger siblings and I walked away with the belief in true sisterhood and what women are capable of achieving when assisted to take charge of their own lives.

Sx


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So does this mean I’m an empath?!

It is safe to say that for the entirety of my life I have felt supremely misunderstood. There has rarely been a time, space or memory in which I recall feeling 100% at peace in my interactions or a sense of total belonging in any location. When I was younger , I whole heartedly associated this with being a child of first generation South Asian immigrants, I myself being born in their country origin. To some extent, this element has been true in terms of consistently feeling trapped between cultures and not quite fitting entirely into either. However, there’s been another component which is innate to my nature that I have discovered to be even more at play in this sensation of misunderstanding; my inherent and unyielding empathetic nature.

Recently, I’ve become aware of the rhetoric that exists around human beings that have a unique and sometimes destructive ability to be more aware of others emotions and in turn subconsciously take these onto themselves. We’ve all heard of the existence of such people but perhaps lack the understanding of how deep seated this ability runs. Consider a sponge if you will, it absorbs everything element of liquidity around it merely by its presence in that location. For those who believe in the spiritual side of things, this takes its human form in the presence of empaths, or those who are more sensitive or attune to the feelings of others around them and quite literally feel with those people. Whether or not I subscribe to this idea, it sounds increasingly familiar to my own nature.

This endemic and deeply rooted ability within my own self is one that isn’t a choice; it’s inherently instinctive. This in itself is a fact that those around me have often tended to misunderstand. Throughout my life I have consistently been told the same thing ‘that this isn’t your problem’ and ‘you can’t save everyone’. There have also been questions of ‘why do you care so much?’. The truth is, it is not a definitive choice that I make, it is purely based on intuition and instinct whereby I feel with the person or persons around me and absorb those emotions within my own psyche subconsciously. I tend to sense whatever emotion they are feeling and then pick up on it without even realising. There have often been times where I have walked away from a situation or interaction and felt such a sense of sorrow and despair and now known the source of that feeling but been confident that I didn’t walk into that encounter with that sensation.

As I’ve gotten older I have been reminded of the importance of creating personal boundaries in order to protect myself from picking up on the negative toxicity around me. This is something that I still struggle with every day; it’s a lot harder to fight against instinctual actions than rational decision making capacity.  Regardless, I try every day to be better at this in order to use and tap into my intuition to help the ones I love and serve humanity through my work as a development practitioner. So, if you find yourself in a position where you’re wondering why I care so much, perhaps now you’ll understand better; or at least I hope you will.

Sx