Light in dark places



Understanding and action: How Viva’s partner network in Patna is developing girls as rights advocates

Every 18 months, we gather together with our colleagues from around the world to share experiences, develop strategy and build relationships.

During our most recent international team meetings, I had the privilege of interviewing Devesh Lal (right), previous co-ordinator of our partner network in Patna, India, and now Network Consultant supporting the development of four of Viva’s partner networks in India.

The focus of the interview was all about the work that our partner network in Patna, Children@Risk Network, is doing to unlock the potential of girls in the city. 

Patna is the capital of Bihar State in north east India, which has a reputation as the country’s poorest state. As the main urban centre in the state, Patna attracts huge migration from the poor rural areas in search of livelihood. People moving to Patna find themselves in conditions that are difficult to live in. The city is home to 99 slums where sanitation and housing quality is poor and many are struggling. One of the stories Devesh was keen to share was of three girls whom he had mentored through the Dare to be Different programme.

Here is what Devesh said: “I was sitting in the office of a network member. Three girls that I had personally mentored through Dare to be Different came in to inform the staff that they were concerned for a friend. She was being forcibly married to an elderly man against her will.

“The CEO asked, ‘what do you want us to do?’ They responded that they wanted help to prevent this act. From the mentoring they had received, they understood that they were too young for marriage and developed a burden to prevent this. Not only did they understand the need to care for their friend, but they had developed the confidence to go to the office and share their concerns.”

But why is this such a big deal? The actions of these three girls demonstrate the difference that Children@Risk Network is making in Patna.

In a country where girls are not generally treated or regarded as equal to boys, those from poorer backgrounds struggle the most as when parents must decide, based on finances, which of their children they can afford to go to school, girls are often the lowest priority, particularly when it gets to secondary education.

Only 28% of females complete lower secondary education compared to 47% of males. UNICEF estimates that 18% girls in India are married before the age of 15 and 47% before they turn 18 years.

With the help of Children@Risk Network, churches, community groups and schools are working together to create a ‘safe city for girls’.

To do this they are:

  • providing child protection training for schools (below)
  • launching a Good Treatment Campaign for Girls
  • holding parenting seminars
  • training organisations and churches to run the Quality Improvement System 
  • building an action group to prevent human trafficking 
  • mentoring girls on their rights, need for education, how to prevent malnutrition and safe relationships to Dare to be Different.

This approach is really working. Examples, like the one from the girls above, show that the girls are growing in understanding of their rights, and confidence to act when girls are at risk or when rights are breached.

The Good Treatment Campaign has been run successfully elsewhere in India in recent years.

Going further, we are excited for Patna’s Good Treatment Campaign for Girls to launch around October this year, as it will be an opportunity for girls themselves to speak out and share what they have learnt with thousands of people in their city.

Changing attitudes is the first step towards changing behaviour and these messages will begin to build an understanding. We are most excited because the girls themselves will be leading the campaign; a visible demonstration of the power they hold.

At the end of the interview, I asked Devesh, “How would you like the Patna network to look in five years’ time?”

Devesh believes there cannot be a ‘final solution’ as all families need different solutions and the task is never finished – the needs and risks to children keep changing and we need to find solutions accordingly.

Sadly, online child pornography is a relatively new threat of abuse for children and Devesh and his colleagues are beginning to work on ways to prevent this and raise awareness of the risks posed.

Ultimately, in dark situations and challenging circumstances, Devesh says, “I would like the network to show light”.