Serving during the Pandemic Year II: In Virtual Capacity

Balsena children participating in various life skills activities
Balsena children engaging in life skills activities.

After about four months of AIF Fellowship service at my host organisation, I returned home during the devastating second wave of the covid-19 pandemic. In the remaining months of the fellowship program, I served on virtual capacity streamlining a needs assessment survey, designing life skills modules alongside its M&E toolkit as well as drafting a curriculum framework. This time, however, I was able to better contextualise the modules given my first-hand experience of participating in some of Shaishav’s education programs as well as the close association I had developed with staff members and Balsena children.

Since the pandemic began, the city of Bhavnagar has witnessed an increase in the number of children begging for alms because many migrant families have experienced a significant loss of income. To address the rising number of child labourers in the city, Shaishav has planned to open a ‘Balghar’ or daycare centre in two of the densely populated migrant communities. The primary objective of the Balghar project is to identify dropout children and enrol them in nearby government schools or Anganwadi centres. Whereas during the non-school hours, Shaishav has planned to rehabilitate these children at the daycare centre by organising a host of activities consisting of life skills, cooperative games, field visits, skilling workshops, counselling sessions, tuition classes as well as providing one nutritious meal.

A sample of the Balghar household survey questionnaire
Sample Balghar household survey questionnaire which has been streamlined on Kobo Toolbox.
Staff members visiting the community homes to conduct the pilot study
Staff members visiting the community homes.
Staff members interacting with parents during the community home survey and numbering the households that have already been surveyed
Staff members interacting with parents.

As a fellow, I helped in drafting the concept note for the Balghar project and framing the questionnaire for conducting the needs assessment survey. Previously, the staff members resorted to filling the survey forms on paper, however, this time as everyone had access to a tablet, I streamlined the entire process online on Kobo Toolbox to ensure transparency, efficacy and accountability. Once the surveys were rolled out, I supervised the entire data collection process right from training the field team to troubleshooting technical glitches which time and again jeopardised the timely completion of the pilot study before the monsoon rains.

The major findings highlighted that from the 250 odd households which have been surveyed, more than 30 children were directly involved in some form of child labour of which 6 have already been married. After spending an average of 6 to 7 hours in unskilled labour work, children get paid a mere 100 to 150 rupees. The majority of children stated that circumstances have forced them to involve in labour work, however, they would like to return to school again if they are given another opportunity.

Sample life skills module on self-awareness
Sample life skills module on self-awareness.
Training the staff members over Zoom
Training the staff members over Zoom.

Besides analysing the needs assessment survey, I developed more than 30 modules based on the World Health Organisation’s 10 core life skills. The WHO has defined life skills as, “the abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.” [1] In the context of Shaishav, life skills activities are regularly conducted with Balsena children to build confidence, self-esteem and promote mental well-being and positive social relationship. While developing the modules, I found the need to also strengthen the organisation’s M&E framework used for assessing the impact of life skills training on Balsena children. Subsequently, towards the end of my fellowship program, I contributed to designing an easy-to-use M&E life skills toolkit.

Sample assessment questionnaire on self-awareness
Sample questionnaire to assess self-awareness.

After preparing the modules, I conducted four training workshops for staff members over zoom to give them a practical example of how they could go about implementing the life skills activities once schools reopened as well as during the one-day training camps in Shaishav. I ensured that the objective and process for guiding children through the steps for each of the activities were well understood and likewise the need to have reflective sessions after the training to help children discuss the learnings. I would have enjoyed carrying out the activities personally with children to acquire a first-hand understanding of the areas in which I will need to further improve in the modules, nevertheless, the training with staff members helped me develop other social skills.

Furthermore, I also contributed to drafting a curriculum framework for Aaranyakshala – an alternative learning space that Shaishav has envisioned for tribal children in the district of Narmada in Gujarat. I focused on developing a broad curricular framework highlighting the subjects and topics that children are required to learn during the elementary and secondary schooling stages in order to successfully pass the open school’s 10th board examination.

Fellows coming together for an appreciative exercise during the virtual endpoint retreat
Appreciative inquiry exercise during the virtual Endpoint Fellowship conference.

Finally, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the AIF Clinton Fellowship program for giving me this opportunity to serve in India’s development sector during the pandemic year. The fellowship helped me turn my mistakes into a valuable learning experience as well as develop agency over my thoughts, decisions and actions. The field experience helped me explore the interconnected nature of social issues and constantly reflect upon my privileges. As I embark on my next journey, I believe the confidence and resilience I developed during the AIF Fellowship program will help me overcome all future eventualities.

Notes: 

[1] Importance of life skills education.

Utsarga is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Shaishav in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. For his fellowship project, he is supporting and strengthening life skills training, self-designed learning techniques, and sustainable living practices for children and locals of vulnerable tribal communities. The self-paced, student-centric approach fostered at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (SAICE) provided Utsarga with ample opportunities to develop his interest in the field of alternative education. After his graduation from SAICE in Arts and Humanities, he pursued his Master’s in Education from Azim Premji University. During his Master's programme, Utsarga learnt about various issues plaguing the public education system and acquired a first-hand understanding of some of the challenges pushing children out of elementary schools in rural communities. His latest engagement has been a research internship with the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group, where he studied school leadership in the context of organisational culture and community participation and its effect on children’s overall learning outcome. He contributed in strengthening the physical education program and raising funds for the school apart from conducting household surveys to understand the socio-economic condition of families, sources of livelihood and management of natural resources. In 2019, he participated in a 15-day entrepreneurial train journey to interact with social change-makers and explore alternative practices to bring quality education in the government schools of rural India. Utsarga is grateful to be serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow; he is looking forward to broaden his understanding of the education sector and experiment alternative practices in the public school system by fostering an all-round development in children.

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