Disturbing violence against children. And adults and systems that commit the far bigger crime of momentary concern before falling into patterns of apathy and indifference. My work often takes me into these unnerving and depressing realities. We are taught, as social workers, to recognise the boundaries of our engagement. And then there is qualitative research which tells us that objectivity is a myth. Who we are influences what we see and what we do about it. I honestly think I made my life more difficult since I became aware of the concept of reflexivity! It is difficult to negotiate this complex labyrinth of principles and codes, of how we reveal ourselves or not within work environments that are deeply challenging. You see human behaviours that don’t deserve to be called human. Even as one struggles to acknowledge that there are possibly painful back stories, it remains soul crushing.
So, what has helped me continue?
I started choosing my assignments a little more carefully. I decided to be associated with work where I learn something and where I can make a specific contribution with whatever skills and abilities I have. I am not going to change the world (I can’t even broker peace within my extended family!!!). But I want to put whatever I have to the best use that I can. And this can be an multiple levels – consolidating insights through process documentation work that can shape future initiatives or at the least provide some easily do-able suggestions, participating in research that highlights important issues and strategies that work or don’t, helping organisations become more reflective in their child protection work through better systems of monitoring and documentation and consolidating technical/legal/experiential learnings into accessible guidelines/manuals for greater systemic use.
Being open to work experiences and people that reaffirm faith in humanity has helped in a big way too. There are kindred spirits out there. Finding these fellow travellers has meant a lot to me. And the interest and excitement of those who are taking their early steps on this journey has also been reassuring. There are islands of good intent and positive actions everywhere – within communities and systems. We need to strengthen and amplify these and help others learn from those experiences.
And the resilience of children. That has been an eye opener. They may choose means and strategies that I don’t understand. But it does not take away from their courage to live through difficult circumstances. After all, at the end of the day, I come back to my comfortable home while they battle with what they have.
Also, I am not sure if I am ever going to attain that elusive work-life balance. I have been pushed into making some adjustments because of health issues (a recurring back pain – a congenital gift). But more than that, I have realised the importance of emotional self care. We cannot do what we do if we do not recognise what makes and unmakes us and how that seeps into our work. We need rest for our physical and emotional selves.
The other parts of our lives can help nourish our work life. I return to poetry and books and music and friends and films. And family. Our much neglected families who put up with so much even when they don’t understand! We are a sum of all of this. It helps.
My work in process documentation often involves listening to multiple versions of the same events. What people say, what strikes them, how they say it and even what they leave out – each of these strands is important and tells its own story. And I have learnt to accept that I hear and understand through the prism of my own lived experiences. That adds another dimension! Linking cause and effect is not always easy. In fact, determining which actor and which action/s led to a ‘success’ is rarely a straightforward affair.
Recently, I spoke to several people who played a part in preventing (or rather postponing) a child marriage. There was the school principal who spoke to the girl’s father. There was the father who stated that he had decided to act on his own (He did not mention the principal till it was explicitly brought up. Even then, he stressed that he had acted on his own accord). And then there was the seventeen year old girl. She had gone willingly with the man who had expressed interest in her. This was an accepted custom in her community. She now agreed that child marriage was not a good idea. She seemed more worried about the prospect of her parents being in jail rather than the adverse health consequences of child marriages, early pregnancies and the rest that followed. So, who and what specifically had helped prevent the child marriage? I was unsure.
I wasn’t even sure if this could be counted as a ‘success story’. Since the girl had come back, life had not been easy. She became irregular in school and finally dropped out. She hadn’t been sure about how the others in the school would react. She, anyways, did not have many friends in school. Meanwhile, a dearly loved niece fell into a pond while playing. The child, barely three years old, drowned and died. As the mother recounted this, the girl sat with her head lowered. She wiped tears that came streaming down her face. She looked up and then she looked away. We all fell silent. That sense of loss and grief filled up all the spaces in that courtyard where we all sat under the fading daylight.
Given a chance would the girl choose to not wait for a year and elope to marry? Possibly. It would take her away from her present that seemed overwhelming and unhappy and restrictive (I got the feeling that the father was a dominant figure who did not take dissent well.)
And I couldn’t frame this as a success story.
We are surrounded by isms. I had always thought that I was immune to at least one of them – aegism. And then I was proved wrong. And I guess I fell for some other stereotypes too!
I was on an assignment facilitating development of Child Protection Policies for a host of faith based organisations across multiple states in India. This had taken me to a location straddling the borders of New Delhi and Haryana. It was an interesting group of participants encompassing various domains, levels , backgrounds, experience and educational qualifications. The age range was 17 to more than 60 years. All this was intentional since we hoped to initiate a dialogue on child protection which could travel beyond the usual senior management and head office fixations. It did make my life difficult as I had to ensure that the entire training was in Hindi and participatory, that there were no power points and that people could move collectively as we drafted the organisational policy together.
This varied and very interesting group of participants included women from the local communities who supported self help group and livelihood related initiatives. One of them – fondly called chachi (aunty; the term is used for father’s younger brother’s wife) – was definitely in the 60-70 year range. She was the oldest participant. And she proved to be the most enthusiastic one!
Some of the younger participants (positioned at office and community locations) were quite active, particularly in the group work sessions. I had expected that. But the consistent interest of chachi blew me away. She would push other participants to focus on the task at hand in all the group work exercises. She possibly took down almost every word I spoke!
On the first day, she had been hesitant in asking me when she didn’t understand anything. Though I encouraged her, she chose to turn to the participants sitting next to her. By days two and three, she was making her opinions abundantly clear including when she was feeling sleepy! She definitely made our daily feedback sessions more lively and real.
I have always believed that each individual has strengths and capacities and can contribute. But during the workshop, my surprise at her participation made me realise that I had possibly started with a somewhat limited perception of who she was, what she could be interested in and what she could do. By day four, I stood corrected. And humbled.
I met Salma while doing an assignment on identifying good practices across the rescue to the reintegration spectrum linked with countering cross border trafficking of children between West Bengal, India and Bangladesh and Nepal. This was under the Missing Child Alert project led by Plan India (for India) with a non government organisation Child in Need Institute (CINI)facilitating actions in West Bengal. A project partner in the state, Socio Legal Aid and Research Training Centre (SLARTC) had shared information about Salma and her younger sister Noorie. Noorie had been trafficked to Bangladesh earlier. She was brought back within a couple of months. An attempt had been made on Salma as well (this was possibly inter country trafficking). Both sisters had also participated in a workshop on creating comics that present key messages on countering child trafficking. Finally, Noorie couldn’t make it for the interview and Salma was there.
Salma appeared to be one of the calm and quiet ones. A measured speaker. I began with some polite conversation. General remarks about her village, asking about her school and family. Then, I tried to ease into the main subject – her current circumstances, support received by her family from the local community, non government organisation and other stakeholders. I told Salma why I was meeting her – i.e. to learn from child survivors of trafficking about the kind of supports that were most effective for them, activities or strategies that we could recommend for other NGOs and development actors to adopt and feedback on the comics workshop. I told her that, if she wished, her name would not appear in print.
There was now a pause in the conversation. Staff from the partner organisation jumped in to provide more information to the girl, to make her feel more comfortable. I had thought of all these lines that I would say. But these words just came out on their own – “I know that our conversation may remind you of painful experiences in the past. But we will not talk about that. We know that you want to look ahead, to build a good and secure future for yourself. We just need to know how you are doing now, who is helping you and what happened at that workshop and any suggestions that you have for improving such workshops.” Her eyes became misty. But her voice remained even – “You can ask me anything you want.”
We talked about her present, how her younger sister was doing and their hopes for the future. She had enjoyed the comics workshop. He voice became more animated as she declared – “I have suffered. We (my family) have suffered and we know. People usually react after something happens. What good is that? All the children should know about these things. You should try and put these messages in our school and madrasa books.” She also spoke about a recent incident when she slapped one of a group of boys who were harassing her. Her maternal aunt had also been with her then. The two had merely been walking down a street. The aunt too had hit one of the boys. I asked – “Weren’t you scared? What if the boys had hit back or they could so something later?” The instant response – “How long can you live in fear? I will face whatever happens.”
It was humbling to meet her. I may be a lot of things. But I don’t think I am as brave as her.