A little girl with henna-painted hands from the SOS Children's Villages Hyderabad, India…
Discrimination against the Girl Child in India
A little girl with henna-painted hands from the SOS Children's Villages Hyderabad, India
India is one of the few countries where males significantly outnumber females and this imbalance has increased over time. According to UNICEF up to 50 million girls and women are missing from India's population as a result of gender discrimination. Although the Indian constitution grants women equal rights with men but strong patriarchal traditions persist, with women's lives shaped by customs that are centuries old.
In most Indian families a daughter is viewed as a liability due to existence of a dowry system which requires the family to pay out a lot of money when the girl is married. Thus the birth of a girl child is not a moment of celebration but is seen as the beginning of financial ruin and extreme hardship.
However this anti-female bias is by no means limited to poor families. Much of the discrimination has to do with cultural beliefs and social norms. Sons are idolized and girls are conditioned to believe that they are inferior to men. "May you be the mother of a hundred sons" is a common Hindu wedding blessing.
India has exceptionally high rates of child malnutrition and this is primarily because of inequality between men and women. Tradition requires that women eat last and least throughout their lives even when pregnant. Malnourished women give birth to malnourished children perpetuating the cycle.
Gender disparities in nutrition are evident right from infancy. Girls are breast-fed less frequently and for shorter durations in infancy; in childhood and adulthood males are fed first and better. A major way of discrimination against the girl child is through neglect during illness. When sick little girls are not taken to the doctor as frequently as are their brothers.
Girls receive far less education than boys due to social norms. Poor families don't send their girl children to school as they are required to look after the younger sibling and do household work while their parents go out to work. Also if a family can afford to send one of their children to school, it is normally the boy who goes and not the girl.
Even in urban areas parents don't spend more on the higher education of daughters as they feel that once married the daughter would leave the family. However, spending on a son's education is considered as an investment because he would eventually support the parents.
Till date girls lack the power to decide who they will marry and in rural areas are often married off as children. The law says that a girl should be 18 years and above at the time of marriage but this has little effect in the face of prevailing patriarchal traditions.
Landscape outside the metropolis Nairobi, Kenya.
Flight crew from Lufthansa Cargo Airlines improve the lives of others in Nairobi.
Cargo pilots care for children in Nairobi
There is something about a new pair of shoes that creates a great deal of excitement in the mind of a child: the trip to the shoe shop, the trying on of several pairs till one fits, the practise walk through the shop to make sure they are comfortable and the pride of wearing new shoes on your home territory. So it wasn't surprising that the children of the SOS Children's Village Nairobi were jumping around on the last Friday of July, when the village turned into a giant shoe shop as 400 pairs of brand new donated shoes and boots, each still in its own box, were delivered to the village after a long and eventful journey from Germany.
It all started when Captain Fokko Doyen coordinator of Cargo Human Care - the social responsibility wing of Lufthansa Cargo Airlines, was approached by a friend working for a large German shoe company, to ask him whether he knew of suitable recipients for 1000 pairs of donated children's shoes. Fokko did not hesitate. Being a long standing friend of SOS Children's Villages, and also a supporter of another children's home just outside Nairobi, he knew the perfect place to send the consignment of shoes - Nairobi Kenya. "We found a way to bring the shoes by truck from Hamburg to Frankfurt (sponsored!)", he explains, "then with the support of Lufthansa Cargo, by plane to Nairobi. It took us a while", he continues, "because of bureaucratic procedures, but with the strong support of SOS Children's Villages in Nairobi the shoes made their way to their final destinations."
Impressed by what they saw
Captain Fokko Doyen first visited the SOS Children's Village Nairobi nine years ago during a stopover in Nairobi. At the time he and his wife had been sponsoring an SOS child in Indonesia and they wanted to see what an SOS Children's Village was like. They were so impressed by what they saw that they decided there and then to assist the village in any way they could. "First I brought clothing and toys", he says, "later schoolbags for all the children. Then we found a school in Idstein Germany that supported me in sponsoring the library for the village." And as if that wasn't enough in 2003, with Captain Rainer Agne, also of Lufthansa, they visited the newly opened SOS Medical Centre and "had the idea to start something with German doctors".
Free medical clinics
That "Something with German doctors" grew into what is now a regular monthly visit by a group of German doctors, dentists and nurses to the SOS Medical Centre Nairobi where they operate free medical and dental clinics for the community living around the village. The medical personnel fly in on the Lufthansa Cargo planes, always bringing donated equipment and drugs with them. While at the centre they conduct specialised clinics ranging from obstetrics to paediatrics. They are even able to carry out surgical procedures using local anaesthetic and have relieved many people of unnecessary suffering.
Why did Fokko Doyen get involved with SOS Children's Villages in the first place? For him the answer is simple: "The friendliness of the SOS people and your perfect working system with the mothers impressed me from the very beginning", he explains.
Made many friends
From that first visit in 1999 until today, Fokko and his colleagues have made many friends at the SOS Children's Village and at the adjoining SOS Medical and Social Centre. They come with no conditions except to be able to contribute to others less fortunate than themselves. "For me only one thing is important", he asserts. "I want to help those poor people in Nairobi, who need our help: children in the villages (not just SOS) and the people who are not able to pay for the doctors."
Not to mention the occasional pair of new shoes. There are now many children in Nairobi proudly walking around in a new pair of shoes thanks to the Lufthansa Cargo pilots who spent time in their short stopovers to organise delivery and to personally hand over the shoes.
The children, mothers and co-workers of the SOS Children's Village Nairobi are grateful for the support of people like Fokko. "Many thanks to Captain Fokko Doyen for his kindness", they said after this latest donation, "and for his personal participation in the lives of SOS children".
"By helping people in Nairobi" Fokko declares, "and talking about it in Germany, I found so many people in my country, who become infected by my ideas and who really help me to build this project 'Cargo Human Care'. This is satisfaction for me: that people understand each other and help each other for a better world!"
Grace lived a hard life scavenging for food until she joined the Street Children Programme at the SOS Social Centre Nairobi. Josephine Rombo, the programme coordinator, explains.
Becoming a child again
Grace (not her real name) joined the SOS Street Children Programme (SCP) in Nairobi in April 2004. She was then 13 years old, extremely shy and lacked self-esteem. The foul odour from her body was a mixture, perhaps, of many days of not having washed, bed-wetting and a lack of clean clothing to change into. Her hair had a reddish brown, unhealthy look and she wore different pairs of coloured sandals, not quite her size. All the same it did not seem to bother her when I met her for the first time. Grace was beautiful, especially when she smiled; her eyes were warm and brown in colour. On the day we met at an open-air market she was picking up spoiled fruit and vegetables from a heap of garbage that was awaiting collection.
Grace was not in school that day, like other children. She told me that she had not been to school for a year and had dropped out of primary class three. The few years in school were characterized by irregular attendance due to a lack of school materials such as books, uniform and imposed school levy charges. She was from a family of four siblings none of whom were in school. As a first-born child from a single parent family, she had been pressured into going out to the streets to look for food, while her younger brothers rummaged through waste in search of metal and plastics. This was my first experience of encountering children from an entire family surviving on the streets.
Grace explained that her mother was sick and her small fish business had collapsed. Hunger pangs, she recalled, were her greatest challenge while she was in school and she lamented that other children teased her that she resembled a boy child.
Grace moves to the streets
When at home Grace was often beaten by her mother for straying out of the house, as her mother preferred her to stay at home and attend to domestic chores. On the other hand, staying at home for Grace meant pains of hunger and so she would venture out to the street despite the expected punishment if found out. At times, Grace rebelled and gradually found herself sleeping out of her mother's house for two or three days a week. Those days became weeks and she later stopped attending school. Her behaviour affected her brother Lawrence and he too left school and began a street life.
Renewing her self-esteem
When she came to the SOS Social Centre, Grace was an easy child to handle. With so much will to transform her life her image changed as she became the proud owner of new clothes from donations distributed by the Street Children Programme at the SOS Social Centre. The morning hot showers at the facility accompanied with a light breakfast made her concentrate her energy on other disturbing and pressing issues in her life. By the end of two months, Grace had renewed self-confidence and the bed-wetting stopped. She wanted to go back to school and asked me to meet her mother.
When I finally met Grace's mother at the SOS Social Centre she was surprised and sceptical about Grace returning to school. The programme had done its work: Grace was empowered to make a positive, informed decision and turn around her life. The programme provided the uniform and stationary required, talked to the director of Galileo Primary school to provide the school place and this golden opportunity was affirmed.
Grace joined the school and has since picked up academically. Her sceptical mother has been proud of her daughter's performance and is happy knowing that she no longer sleeps outside the home or wanders the streets. School meals are catered courtesy of the school director, and this has greatly supported Grace in school. Her brother has now joined boarding school sponsored by another NGO after his case was referred to one of our partners.
Grace's mother also transforms herself
The Street Children Programme at the SOS Social Centre has provided Grace's mother with counselling sessions for herself and opportunities to attend parental workshops organized by the programme. These sessions have had an impact on the way she handles her children's issues and created for her awareness on many issues such as law, health and child welfare. She is an active member of the programme and has been an inspiration to the new members. Her health has greatly improved through medical care supported by the SOS Medical Centre and she is now able to earn an income from a horticulture green house working as a labourer.
Grace, on the other hand, has integrated well into school and has new friends. Her keenness to remain in school shows that children found on the streets and out of their home safety net are in search of basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing and a sense of belonging. My last school visit to see Grace in school reminded me that she represents the girl child who has the desires to access education and develop herself but is met with challenges and the pressure to become a domestic helper.
Protecting children's rights at the Street Children Programme
Many nations across the world are aware of gender inequality, but traditions and cultures sometimes take precedent, especially throughout the African continent. The programme is guided by the need to protect children's rights, making sure no child is excluded from accessing primary education. This message is communicated to care givers through workshop trainings organized by the Street Children Programme and in quarterly meetings with caregivers. It is fruitless to work with the child alone, and the programme has the mandate to engage the adult care giver to take an active role in the child's welfare.
The Street Children Programme at the Social Centre Nairobi continues to have ties with children even after they join school and are reunited with their family. School visits are carried out for each child, and the programme continues to track Grace by making home visits to ensure there is continuity. In the holidays, children recruited come together for activities in the centre, which include ecological trips, games, tuitions and camps, enabling the programme to catch up with their lives.