Power, school and community

By: Johnny Baltzersen, joba@ciced.dk

“The main objective of the project is to bring schools and communities together. School and communities don’t work together. They are like dissected from each other. There is a reason for this. And that is, if you look at these schools, they are very often housed by teachers who come from a completely different culture and often have high privilege in society, whereas the local community has a different language and often feel or report that they feel less”. This is how Rita Tisdall, who coordinates CICED’s efforts in Helambu with Just Nepal Foundation/JNF, introduces a new video about the project.

According to Nepalese federal law, local communities have power over schools. But power is not something that grows out of a piece of paper. Power is deeply rooted in social and cultural traditions and relationships. And customs and relationships do not change through writing on paper.

This recognition is often absent from [international] development work, and it is rare for development projects to openly and directly address the need to change local power relations. But such changes are the focus of CICED’s project with Just Nepal Foundation: Better Life – Educating and Keeping Children Safe in Helambu, Nepal.

And – a difficult but peaceful one – changing the power relations between school and community starts with those who influence how power should act and change on a day-to-day basis.

The project has employed a group of facilitators – or outreach teams. They will be the agents of change in the 34 schools involved in the project. And they are the ones who will be convincing exponents of new thinking and practice.

But such change agents are most often from the elite ranks themselves. And even if they have experience from other development projects, they are typically unaware or unmindful of how, despite good intentions, they end up at best ‘wading in the mud’, and at worst ‘making things worse because they do not see, do not understand, do not question the context in which they operate.

As explained by Rita Tisdall, that is why the preparation of facilitators starts with workshops that, among other things, make them aware of power and privilege – their own power and privilege. We focus on them unpacking their cultural baggage and becoming aware of their own position in relation to people in the villages.

Indira Kumari Dulal, one of the facilitators, shares her experiences:

“In the previous organizations I used to work for, whenever we would go to the community, I would take my readymade materials and keep my own ideas and thoughts from the community – not giving them much opportunity to share their thoughts. However, after participating in the training where I reflected on my personal life and social transformations, I go to the community and listen in a different way, so I am now trying to listen with more attention and allowing more time to understand what people are really trying to say and how they feel”.

It wasn’t just the workshops that were part of the facilitators’ preparation. Just as power does not change through legislation alone, behavior does not change through one or more courses alone. There needs to be a focus and systematic effort to change practice within the practice itself.

The facilitators conducted a three-month exercise called “SEE it,” which mapped each community’s individual needs and aspirations and school. These aspirations form the common basis for collective work in the coming years.

The “SEE it” mapping exercise revealed severe and often hidden challenges. Many children are disabled, mainly due to a lack of birth preparation. So far, they have not received any benefits. JNF has mobilized local authorities to establish a partnership with Community Based Disability Services, which will accompany JNF in the field to ensure that these children and their families are registered and receive the support they are entitled to.

Alcohol among the poorest of villagers is a significant challenge. Most children from 3 villages suffer from alcohol syndrome. JNF has formed an expert group that is currently developing a strategy to support an entire community dependent on alcohol. This will be the first time in Nepal that such a collective effort is being implemented.

Many parents have had to abandon their children and travel to other areas and countries searching for income, often leaving a teenager as the head of the family. JNF is currently working with school teachers to set up internet connections between parents abroad so that children can keep in touch with their parents. Child protection and support groups are being set up.

Helambu is an area known for child trafficking. The JNF has agreed on a protocol with the National Council for Children’s Rights whereby the JNF can report suspicions of trafficking to the Council, which is the national child protection authority with the power to instruct police to investigate and carry out interventions at district and national borders.

So far, JNF has reported two cases of trafficking, one of which involved 70 children trafficked to India. The hard work now is to support the families so that they do not have to and cannot be manipulated by traffickers to give their children away.

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