The Children’s Parliament in India engaged more than 300 children from nine villages in dis-cussions to brainstorm what could be done to address issues related to education, health care and livelihoods. It was the mass school closures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic that moti-vated the children to decide on solutions to support access to education. As a result of the school closures and education suddenly shifting to digital spaces, the children had discovered that most public-school students in the villages could not afford digital gadgets and internet to continue attending classes online. This left them out of education and the school environ-ment to the point that younger children even started forgetting basic alphabet and numbers.
“Many of our parents lost their jobs. Due to closure of schools many children are going to work to support their families. And many who cannot afford smartphones are unable to attend online classes.” – Child representative from the Children’s Parliament, 11
Based on this grim reality the children decided on a project to support the younger children on basic education and activities, ensuring the most vulnerable do not fall behind even amid the Covid-19 challenges. Five 13-17 years old volunteers from the Children’s Parliament took the lead in the project. These children organized safe spaces in the villages provided by Shan-ti Ashram, where they could gather at least three times a week with the younger children and engage in sessions on basic arithmetic, languages, dance, poetry and even basket making. The Children’s Parliament project leaders supported the online learning of their younger peers with mobile phones loaned by Shanti Ashram staff and also conducted some lessons via Zoom.
As the COVID-19 restrictions were eased by the government and schools started resuming, these children did not relinquish their noble idea but kept meeting on the weekends and fur-ther supporting the education of the younger children. The child leaders worked in partner-ship with the staff of Shanti Ashram, who helped ensuring the learning spaces observed the safety and health protocols including the use of face masks.
Promoting participatory processes for children is what guided Deepa Kumar, Coordinator of the Children’s Parliament in India, and her fellow Shanti Ashram staff to encourage the chil-dren to take the leadership of the project right from the conceptualization of the idea all through the implementation process. The adults supported in the most difficult areas such as budgeting, but importantly with a child-led approach. From the onset, Deepa switched off the “answer mode” and turned on the “question mode”, careful not to give ideas to the children but to instead ask relevant questions and allow the children find their solutions.
“My friend and I gathered and discussed to help our juniors in their education. We prepared the budget for the same. We found it difficult to prepare the budget because we didn’t know the exact price of the things. I was happy, because so far I was thinking only elders can give classes but now we are able help our juniors in their education.” – Anshifa, 6th Grade.
The leading children had to tackle many questions that were new for them. They also had to come up with solutions to overcome their doubts regarding their skills to teach others and their concerns about the younger children respecting and listening to them during the classes. As one solution, the children came up with ‘Golden Class Rules’ that guided both the child leaders during the sessions, and helped build mutual trust.
A fully child-led and owned project in itself was a new way of approaching child participation for the children as well as the supporting Shanti Ashram staff. Many doubts and concerns were raised during the process, but through discussions and ensuring the children could take the lead 100%, these were overcome and led to a change in thinking. Deepa, an adult ac-companier from the Children’s Parliament described this change in ownership and children’s meaningful participation as an awakening to their organization and the traditional ways of working with children. She realized that children are creative and critical thinkers who can come up with solutions, if we give them the space to do this and allow them to take the lead:
“As a team and organization, we have learned and grown a lot. We are seeing a lot of changes in the children who are who are now thinking of the solutions – before, we adults were giving them, now the children are gathering the information! (…) We have to think creatively to do whatever is possible with the children, they can think very criti-cally, out of the box, we should give them the time and space to participate.”
The parents and the village communities were very receptive to the children’s project, and welcomed it as an alternative to children’s learning during school closures, as well as a way to bridge the digital divide with regards to education. The parents were also happy that children had this activity and were not home alone. Projects such as this can help children affected by poverty receive education and catch up with the help from their peers. Additionally, provision of education to vulnerable children can eventually help them out of poverty, as education opens many doors and possibilities. According to Deepa, governments also need to do more in making inclusive decisions with regards to education during times of pandemics, in order to not leave any child behind.
This project involved altogether 45 children from nine villages, supporting the education of more than 115 young vulnerable children. It was part of the Children’s Solutions Lab, support by Arigatou International through its initiatives; End Child Poverty and Ethics Education for Children. The Lab is a Children’s Solutions Lab to create opportunities and support children to address child poverty through solutions focused on education.
“I can probably say that this initiative (–) will be helpful for many other children and we will continue to support many more children in the future as well through the Children’s Solutions Lab.” Child representative from the Children’s Parliament, 5th Grade.