See in the New Year by becoming a Godmother

See in the New Year by becoming a Godmother


(c) VSO

I’ve just signed up to become a Godmother (I was number 36!) in support of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO)’s new campaign for women,  the Godmothers.


VSO tells us that:

“Worldwide more than 60 million girls have been forced into early marriage. Of the 780 million people who can’t read, 510 million are female. Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours but earn just 10% of the income.

The new UN women’s agency could put a stop to all this. But to fulfil its promise it needs your help.

The Godmothers is a group of men and women who think women everywhere deserve a chance. Together we’ll watch over UN Women, help keep it on track and protect it from people who’d like to see it fail – everything a good godmother would do. By making sure UN Women gets the powers and funding it needs, we can make life better for millions of women worldwide.”

Click here to sign up and be a supporter – and help to make the New Year a Happier one for women everywhere.

Merry Christmas from the Gender Blog

Merry Christmas from the Gender Blog

… and who better than these beaming faces to wish you all a peaceful and happy festive season?

This lovely photo also features on the official Christmas card,  which you can view here.

(If you want to hear them as well,  check out this YouTube clip of the children carol singing in Goa last week; I can promise you it’s “Jingle Bells” like you’ve never heard it before!)

The flip-flops have landed!

The flip-flops have landed!

Educators’ Trust India have just sent me this photo – isn’t it wonderful?

It shows the ETI team distributing the children’s flip-flops which (fellow volunteer) Natasha and I bought a few days before I left Goa.  We went to the local (non-touristy) market and,  with the help of our lovely taxi driver Satish,  negotiated a good price for 20 pairs of sturdy, rigid soled flip-flops in assorted sizes,  from ages 3 to 12.

They worked out at around £1 per pair;  we could have paid less,  but we wanted to get the better quality flip-flops so that they stood up to the wear and tear of life in the rural slum and on the beach.

So here are the children trying on the flip-flops for size – don’t their parents look proud and happy? The mums are looking on and smiling,  the dads are helping to fit the shoes to the feet.

And here’s a group shot of all the kids with,  for some of them,  their first ever pair of shoes.

I just love seeing how much difference a tiny amount of money can make to these children’s lives.  While I was away,  my very wonderful friend Liz saw my Facebook updates about ETI and e-banked me £20,  simply saying: “spend it how you see fit.”

That £20 bought milk for the children and mums in the field for a month.

£10 will buy 10 pairs of children’s flip-flops and help to protect the feet of girls like Jyoti.

£10 also enables the teachers and children at one of the charity’s schools to have rice for their lunch for a month.

£5 will buy apples and bananas for 30 children.

Small potatoes for us – big impact for these kids.

I’m gradually building a fabulous collection of photos featuring Educators’ Trust India and their work and I’ll post a link to my online album once I get it set up.

If poverty has a colour, it’s blue –

If poverty has a colour, it’s blue –

– and if poverty is a fabric, it’s plastic.

I’ve had a lot of emails and texts over the last few weeks,  asking for more details of what I’ve been doing in Goa with the good folk from the charity Educators’ Trust India (ETI).  The short answer about their work can be found via this link to my freelance writing site at Collaborative Lines,  where I share some of the copy that I’ve written for the charity’s soon to be launched website.

And here’s the long answer … part one of my report on the wonderful work done by this tiny yet passionate charity.

If you’ve ever been to Goa,  or perhaps to any beach resort in Asia,  you will probably have been approached by beggars and/or beach sellers – usually women and children (I’ve blogged about it before).  They sell all manner of things (here’s a list which I made last year) and are extremely persistent in getting you to buy their jewellery, sarongs, peanuts and pedicures.  What had never ever occurred to me was where these people actually … lived. I knew that in many cases they travelled to Goa each autumn for the start of the tourist season in October and that they arrived there from other Indian states such as Karnataka. But where do they live when in Goa?

It was only when I met the ETI team and they invited me to join them on one of their regular visits to a slum settlement that I really started to give thought as to housing.  Take a look at my photo – it shows an idyllic rural scene, doesn’t it?  This field,  a currently dry rice paddy,  is located about 1.5 miles inland from the popular tourist resort of Calangute.  But,  as the camera pans back a bit,  you can see a woman doing laundry in a muddy stream.  Zoom back a bit more and you can see that the field is actually full of shacks made from blue plastic; basically, tents,  improvised with plastic and using tree trunks as supports. 

This field is home to around 100 adults and children ( a figure which will increase as the season progresses) from the eastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh,  who travel by train (it takes three days) each October to work and beg in the Goan beach resorts.  I have visited urban slums before but have never seen anything like this; this field is where you live when you have nothing other than what you can carry or wear.   There’s no electricity.  No running water.  Certainly no sanitation.  No way of cooking other than in a pot over an open fire.

(Some of the Goans complain about this influx of economic migrants and say that,  well,  it serves them right that they live like this – perhaps they should stay put in their home states? To which my reply is – I think it’s safe to assume that they’re not leaving comfortable and luxurious home behind in order to travel across the sub-continent and then camp in this field;  this is an act of the impoverished and desperate …)

The first thing that hit me when we arrived at the field was the smell.  Without labouring the point, when the weather is 30-something Celsius and you’ve got humans, cows, dogs, chickens and pigs all using the great outdoors as their al-fresco bathroom … yeah.  The field does have a fresh water spring and the residents use that for drinking water and the muddy stream on the other side of the field for bathing, laundry and everything else.  However,  this obviously doesn’t work all the time and dirty water does get into the kids,  as we witnessed with the poor child who I visited in the hospital in Panjim a few weeks ago.  She is now suffering from severe kidney failure,  brought about by drinking unclean water.  ETI are paying for her treatment,  visiting her every day and giving her parents money for food so that they can stay with her in the hospital.

This next photo shows the rather clever use of sari fabric as improvised baby slings; each harness contains a six month old baby.  They are twins,  born to a 15 year old girl,  who leaves them in the care of the older women while she works on the beach,  undertaking manicures and pedicures (in reality,  a nail shape and paint,  for which she charges c. £2).  She told me all this in really excellent English,  which she has learned from tourists – and yet she can neither read nor write.

So,  what do the ETI team do to help these field dwellers?  Well,  firstly,  they set up an impromptu school a few times a week,  where the children sit down and have a very basic “lesson” with picture books,  crayons and paper.  They are taught to write their names in English and to count to 10,  to say please and thank you.   This is the most basic of educational approaches but,  for some children,  the simple discipline of learning to sit quietly,  to not fight or play but to listen,  is in itself a learning opportunity.  These are kids who would otherwise be working on a beach,  selling peanuts or doing a little dance to the beat of a drum and then asking for money,  so in some respects,  just having them available to sit down and mess about with paper and crayons feels like an achievement.  The ETI team also work hard to get the parents involved;  they arrived with a basic medical kit and will treat,  where possible,  small injuries – usually foot related,  like Jyoti from last month’s blog entry – but only with permission from the parents.  This photo shows Jacob,  one of ETI’s wonderful volunteers,  showing a few of the men how to write their names – the team really encourages participation and involvement from anyone,  not just the kids.

At the end of each hour long lesson, ETI hand out fresh fruit to the children;  I paid for this one week and for £7 we bought enough fruit for each child at the settlement to get an apple and a banana each.  Diego,  the charity’s Goan founder, insists that each child washes their hands prior to receiving the fruit and so we saw a line set up whereby the children queued up to wash their hands and then queued again to receive the fruit – all administered by the mums.

The gender divide is so marked at this settlement.  It’s really not overstating the case to suggest that the women work (on the beach,  at the camp – cooking,  washing, sweeping up,  taking care of the children) and the men drink and gamble.  The local Goan hooch is a spirit called feni, made from distilled cashew nuts,  and a 60 ml shot of it costs about 10p.  When we arrived at the camp at 9.30am,  there were men lying on the ground in a drunken stupor,  or lurching around, shouting and fighting with each other.  And they absolutely reeked of booze;  the smell oozed from every pore.  Diego told me that many of the men are addicted to feni and that any money earned by the women and children goes straight into the coffers of the local bars or is gambled away in complicated card games played between a group of the men in one corner of the field.

One of the charity’s key aims is to get the children out of the cycle of working,  not being educated, and thus marrying young (the average woman at the camp is aged 25 and usually has five children by this stage; I certainly observed that the amount of alcohol consumed by the men in no way seemed to either impede sexual performance or affect fertility …).  It seemed clear that the responsibility for bringing money into the family coffers lies very much with the women and children,  and that’s why getting the buy-in from the mums is so vital to the success of this project;  if we can persuade the women to allow their children to stop working and to instead attend one of the ETI’s two local schools,  then there is hope for the next generation,  who will be both educated and have ambitions for a life of more than selling peanuts and t-shirts on Baga beach.

Last week,  I had this conversation with Jyoti’s mum, Seevarna;  I asked her if she would allow Jyoti to go to one of the schools and she replied that she would love to,  but that because her husband was a brandy drinking alcoholic,  they needed income from both Seevarna and her two daughters in order to buy enough money to live – and so Jyoti could not be spared from her duties at the beach.

These women lead hard, hard lives; yes,  education is the answer in many cases,  but I do now see how tough it must be to decide that when your 11 year old daughter can perhaps earn £1 or so per day for the family coffers – and if that £1 makes the difference between being hungry (or getting a black eye from your husband when you return home with insufficient money for his brandy …) – that allowing her to stop work and go to school may not be an option.

In a future post,  I’ll write about the two schools run by Educators’ Trust India and how they benefit the children who have broken out of the child labour trap.

An introduction to Educators’ Trust India

An introduction to Educators’ Trust India

Another brief update, typed in haste before the wi-fi drops out …

So, I have learned to survive without my Kindle,  although I did have heart failure last Saturday when,  for eight nail biting hours,  I had no laptop either.

(Long story. Temporary hard disk fail. Say. No. More).

However,  thanks to the wonderful work of Digital World in Calangute (who,  should The Great Goan Novel ever get published,  will definitely be thanked in the acknowledgements bit at the front),  all was restored by 6pm and so I could breathe again.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter may have seen my frequent references over the last week to a small, local charity called Educators’ Trust India.  I met one of their founders quite by chance last Tuesday and he invited me to visit one of the free schools which they run here for the children of impoverished migrant workers.  I ended up spending a day at the school (more on this to follow), joining them when they visited an extremely sick child with kidney failure in the Panjim hospital, spending time with the children at the beach one afternoon (here I am with the girls!) and also tagging along when they visited a slum settlement to give a basic literacy lesson and provide fruit to the children there (more on that too).

It’s almost impossible to believe how much great work these guys do for the children on virtually no money at all;  they are staffed almost entirely by volunteers from around the world and their core team includes a retired British GP and a former headmaster from a tough school in Halifax.  Their faith in the power of education to overcome illiteracy, child labour and poverty  is unshakable and I am so impressed with their passion and love for these forgotten children that I’ve offered my services to help with their new website (hence no URL provided here – yet) and their media campaign.

Here’s a few words from one of their board members, Dr Mistry,  from a email I received from him yesterday:

” … all our brothers and sisters and uncles and aunties who are involved with our ET project are all very disciplined and genuine in the term of caring,compassion and going that extra mile in helping the most vulnerable children with their family in our society.
We, the Indians are poor, but India is rich.
It is one country that I know which has a system which is so extreme, there is a law for the rich and a law for the poor.
We have a school for the rich and a school for the poor, the education standard is such that, it is almost impossible for a poor child to go through the education till age 21 to 24 yrs, this as you know, in UK it is normal for a student to go through, the primary, secondary and University level, UK, gives help at each stages.
We at ET, the Essence is to Empower these deprived children to have the same high standard as the rich, we believe we will achieve this, we obviously need help from like minded people. We welcome you in this mission and as times goes on,  we all be able to see the outcome, in these little flowers who will blossoms into excellent citizen, who in turn  will help their own people who are going through the same journey.”

One particularly positive piece of news that I can share is that Educators’ Trust India were able to help Jyoti,  the little girl with the injured foot whom I met in my first week here. She is now fully healed and doesn’t even limp,  thanks to them treating her at their free weekly drop-in clinic.  These people do such wonderful work for the children – I’m proud to be helping them in some small way and will write more about their projects in my next couple of blog posts.