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Why I Started Value-Based Schools In Slums To Tackle Juvenile Crime

04/11/2015 8:18 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Anjali Nigam

"Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil". --C. S. Lewis

I was numb... it couldn't be happening again. The brutal rape of a two-year old infant and a five-year old girl in Delhi last month brought back painful memories of the December 2012 Nirbhaya case, a rape so ferocious it shocked the world. I had felt then that it was actually happening to me; many of us feel that way every time it happens. The sleepless nights filled with unhappiness, fear and a deep sense of frustration are back again. Frustration? Because I also feel responsible as a member of society in which such depravity continues to exist.

One reason we have failed to stem the evil can be found in a startling statistic: In 2014, 90% of rapes in India were committed by persons -- increasingly juvenile boys -- known to the victims. What can laws and governments do about this? Add another statistic: women and girls belonging to the poorer section of society constitute 64% of all rape victims-- and a picture emerges. The majority of rapists come from deprived sections of society, mostly slums, where traditional social norms have broken down, education and adult supervision are seriously lacking and there is no imparting of values any more.

"[T]he lack of values and the brutalisation of sensibilities through constant exposure to violence (the sub-culture in many slums) made it possible for a 15-year-old boy to thrust iron rods into a live human body."

When "Nirbhaya" happened, I lived in a "zone of concern" for three full days, becoming increasingly negative and afraid before pulling myself up and thinking about what I could do to make a difference, even if small. On the fourth day, I created a group of feeling citizens, including students, housewives, bureaucrats, consultants and professionals. Even people from media like NDTV and Bollywood scriptwriters joined me in my small endeavour.

We had rounds of discussions, and we came to the conclusion that unless we could change mindsets we would never control, what was happening. That it was the lack of values and the brutalisation of sensibilities through constant exposure to violence (the sub-culture in many slums) that made it possible for a 15-year-old boy to thrust iron rods into a live human body. We should never forget this.

Figures on juvenile crimes by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reveal that from 2002 to 2012, there has been a 143% increase in the number of rapes by juveniles. In the same period, the number of murders committed by minors went up by 87% while there has been a whopping 500% increase in the number of kidnappings of women and girls by minors.

However, as shocking as these statistics may be, it is important to remember that over a period of five years (2007-2012) heinous crimes like rape and murder added up to just 8% of total spectrum of crimes by minors.

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I launched our first seminar on "Regenerating Values & Gender Sensitization" a month and a half later at IIT Delhi, with a three- pronged approach:

1. Believing each of us is a value centre, a person who can impart sound values to others which can have a multiplier effect, I launched "Value & Gender Sensitivity" workshops in colleges, corporate offices and PSUs to encourage and motivate educated and more fortunate Indians to start doing at least one thing which helps create a "value-based society".

2. We decided to teach values to urban slum children, to reduce the crimes against women, especially juvenile crimes. Thus Neem Schools were born, which I will elaborate on further.

3. We launched technical innovations for women's safety competitions for college students across India, to divert young thinking energies into practical solutions: we came up with nine innovations in six months, some of them showcased in our first international seminar.

Nirbhaya happened right in the heart of India's capital Delhi at least in part because young minds are being perverted by vivid descriptions of rapes and murders in films, videos and other media easily accessible on a mobile phone. According to the telecom whiz Sam Pitroda, there are a billion mobile phones in operation in India today. To the question "where do these criminals get their ideas from?" we can look at the environment in which they are raised.

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There is an absolute void when it comes to formalized imparting of the right values to urban slum children, both within homes and schools. The parents of these children, migrants from across the country, are mostly contract workers, roadside beggars, cart sellers etc. Many of the mothers work as domestic servants and have to fight continuously to make ends meet. They often leave their children alone at home (this makes girls physically vulnerable to preying neighbours) and have little time and energy to nurture good values -- particularly when they see others getting ahead using questionable means.

"I wanted Neem Schools to make these children 'respected and respecting citizens'. The school would not teach classes -- just values taught through sensitization techniques."

School dropout rates are high, while government school teachers are also generally not highly motivated to bridge the value-gap in these children either. So they grow up seeing the great divide between haves and have-nots and idolize films that glamorize anti-heroes making a fast buck.

It was against this backdrop that I came up with the vision of my Neem Schools for Value Education for urban slum children between the ages of three and 15. These children often have little to occupy them all day; listlessness is common but so is the urge to do something that brings them into the limelight. The desire to be famous, even for all the wrong reasons, is high.

A child's personality is an outcome of genetic transfers from the parents as well as the environment in which they are raised. I wanted Neem Schools to make these children "respected and respecting citizens". The school would not teach classes -- just values taught through sensitization techniques. We discuss values of respect for self, respect and empathy for women, children, elders, respect for the environment and we aim to embed it in these young minds from childhood.

For my Neem School, I go right to the centre of the slum, and identify a neem tree -- they seem to exist in every slum. Why only a neem tree? Because it has cleansing qualities, and value education also cleanses physically, mentally, emotionally, and morally.

After talking to parents and explaining my simple objective, they usually become partners in their children's value growth by providing inputs and feedback. Using well-researched experiential learning techniques like five-step storytelling, role playing, painting, music and dance, our "value initiators" (volunteers trained in imparting a value education) take each slum child through a need-based learning program, which is both simple and highly effective and can be easily replicated anywhere .

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Our team of IIT students have created a well-researched syllabus linking value gaps with corresponding types of crimes, in different slums. A handbook -- with lesson plans for each value that needs to be driven to reduce a particular type of crime -- has been created with simple steps to be followed - for example, we do a prayer in the beginning, where all children sing and then take out mantras from the prayer. The value initiator probes the children for the meaning and how they will use this value.

One of our favourite methodologies is painting "Dream Flags" to help develop children's aspirations and life goals, while putting stars in their eyes. It makes them realize that they are no different from others and that they can also reach what they aspire for! We at Neem Schools, dare the children to dream! We are also trying to make it possible for them to live their dreams through industry partnerships.

"I urge all to join in and give just two hours per week of their time and thinking energies for the cause of universal peace, safety, brotherhood and a better future."

I embarked on my Neem School Model in 2010 for children at construction sites, but developed this idea further in 2013 when Nirbhaya happened. Our tri-partnership model between the trained volunteers and corporates, whom we call value initiators, the children and their families as value multipliers is a 360 degree model, which has led to creating paradigm shifts in all levels and types of population. Even the 18-24-year-old value initiators have reported major positive behaviour and attitudinal impacts. For instance, six-year-old Raghu used to drink and smoke with his parents. Our interventions, which are simple and caring, made him come to me just after a couple of weeks and say, "Ma'am I have stopped drinking and smoking... I will not do it again."

Ten-year-old Kabir, with coloured hair and a carefree attitude, lived in Mansarovar slum. After our first conversation I knew he went to school but he was unkempt and didn't participate in the group discussion. Yet he listened and I was surprised to find later that he was repeating the values he had learnt, had started bathing and taking pride in his appearance. He started to sing and dance and I realized he needed a friend.

The change goes beyond the kids to impact the volunteers and parents too. Ojasvi, a volunteer, says, "I give moral values to underprivileged children but without realizing it the Neem school as well as the children are improving my own social manners, interpersonal relations and moral values. After just two sessions, I find there is a drastic change in me as well as in children. We are attached with each other emotionally and mentally too. Though I am their teacher, it is they who have taught me the reality of life.'

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Today we have six Neem Schools in six slums in Delhi and Gurgaon, covering about 500 children. To make an impact I need to cover at least 40% of children in slums. This requires at least 100 Neem Schools in Delhi alone. I urge all to join in and give just two hours per week of their time and thinking energies for the cause of universal peace, safety, brotherhood and a better future.

I will provide all support in terms of sharing the Neem school model, training, lesson plans and syllabus free of cost to help our children and youth imbibe the much needed moral consciousness for creating a better world.

You can contact me at: dr.anjalinigam@gmail.com, www.wcgindia.org

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