We are inspired by every country in which we work. But India, in particular, holds special meaning to the Free The Children’s WE Villages team, because our story starts here.
It was on a trip through South Asia in 1995 that Craig Kielburger witnessed first-hand the working conditions of child laborers. Three years later, with a small group called WE Charity, he set out to build a rescue home in India for freed child laborers.
It was clear from the beginning there was no quick fix to the problem of child labor, which impacts at least 12% of Indian children, and is rooted in systemic poverty.
More than a quarter of India’s population lives below the poverty line, and nearly half of all children in rural areas are underweight. Only half of girls attend secondary school, and 35 percent of women are illiterate.
We began working in India 1998. In 2008, India officially joined our list of Free The Children’s WE Villages partner countries, and we’ve since seen incredible progress in the communities in which we work. We have successfully built and refurbished hundreds of schools, created health centers, organized women’s alternative income groups and more.
Our WE Villages projects in India take place in the Udaipur and Rajsamand district in the northern desert state of Rajasthan, which suffers from many environmental, economic and social crises. Girls in India, specifically among tribal populations of Rajasthan, experience a great number of gender disparities—they have the highest female illiteracy rate in the entire country. Child labor is also a rampant throughout the region.
Our goals here are to combat child labor, and provide access to education for the indigenous and most marginalized people. Here’s how we’re doing this.
India boasts relatively high school enrollment rates, but the drop out rate in rural communities is high, and quality education is uncommon. According to a report by The Economist, half of students in rural communities can’t read at a basic level, and the same percentage of students drop out by age 14. These numbers are even worse among girls. We know that education levels and literacy rates among women have a direct correlation to the well-being of families, which is why WE Charity is determined to improve access to education for all children, and in particular girls. We do this by:
India is home to more than one billion people, and the population is growing. This puts a huge strain on the country’s water and sanitation resources. World Bank estimates that 21 percent of communicable diseases here are related to unsafe water, and hundreds of thousands of people die every year from diarrhea alone. According to UNICEF, 33 percent of the population lacks access to latrines, and more than 50 percent of people go to the bathroom in the open. We help by facilitating the provision of:
Childhood and maternal mortality are tragically high in many parts of India, because of a lack of hospitals, clean water and sanitation, and quality doctors or nurses. More than 2 million children die every year from preventable illnesses, according to UNICEF, and fewer than half of children are immunized. Women tend to suffer from malnutrition, high rates of breast cancer, and post-partum illness or death. We help by providing:
Indian children are among the most underweight and malnourished in the world, according to The World Bank. Women are particularly underfed because they usually eat after the rest of the family has finished, and often food that’s less nutritious. People who aren’t well fed are more susceptible to illness and disease, and are less productive. Our programs support healthy communities by:
Empowering the people in rural India with the tools they need to improve their ability to earn an income is a key WE Villages pillar. Here’s how we help:
The community of Lai in northwest India has a population of approximately 700 people, of which 250 are children. In 2008, the community had one local school with two classrooms serving grades 1 through 3. Students were taught by a single teacher and the school had no furniture or learning materials such as books or pencils. Enrollment was low, and so was attendance. Girls were discouraged from attending school. Unsafe drinking water, improper health practices and little or no access to health care meant children missed school because they were sick.
Since we partnered with Lai, the village has experienced huge improvements to the wellbeing of the people who live here. Here’s how:
WE Charity has built five classrooms, and expanded the school to Grade 5. This has brought more teachers to the school. Enrollment and attendance have both seen a steady increase.
In the warm climate of India, waterborne diseases are easily spread. Cross-contamination of drinking water was a major issue in Lai.
Community members from Lai have taken ownership of health projects including care and management of the medicinal garden.
Women are leading the charge among projects implemented as part of the opportunity pillar.
At eight years old, Manju already knows what she wants to be when she grows up: inspired by her teacher, she wants to help her community by becoming a teacher herself.
So, every morning at 6:00 a.m., Manju wakes up excited to go to school. She eats breakfast, says goodbye to her mother, Nanking, and her father, Babu, and heads to class.
By 7:15, Manju is sitting in one of the five classrooms WE Charity has helped the community of Lai to build. Her favorite subject is English, but she enjoys the lessons on writing and reading as well. At 10, she enjoys a lunchtime meal prepared in the school kitchen and, now well fed, she is ready for the rest of her lessons. The school day ends at noon, but there is time enough to play with her friends in the garden before she has to go home.
Her afternoon is spent studying and helping around her parents’ farm: things need to be tidied up and the cows need to be fed. At 5:30 she goes off to fetch water and firewood to help prepare dinner. In the past, this task would have taken hours. Manju would have walked miles to the nearest water source and then walked miles back carrying a heavy jug of water. This trek might have taken all day, which would have prevented her from going to school. But thanks to the work being done on the well, Manju can go to school and still help out her family.
By 7:00, everyone has eaten dinner, and while she helps her family clean up, she asks her sisters how their day was. When the plates and pots are put away, there is still half an hour before she needs to go to bed, so she decides to study a little more. But she’s careful to go to bed by 9:30. Like today, tomorrow is a busy day, and so she needs to get lots of sleep.
Manju’s day serves as a reminder that thanks to the improvements in Lai, the barriers that would have otherwise prevented her from getting an education have been removed. Now Manju has the support needed to chase her dreams—and that’s what really matters.