By Sugata Roy
KRISHNAGIRI, India, 19 July 2016- “Don’t be afraid of maths, it is very easy. I will help you master it. Just remember, you have to practise over and over again to beat your fear,” said a chirpy, optimistic voice, filling the classroom of 30 children with an instant wave of confidence.
The ‘teacher’, much to anyone’s surprise, is a 13-year-old, Vidyashree. An adolescent unlike many others her age, Vidyashree is one of the first members of the adolescent club in the Vannathipatti village of Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district who has taken up the responsibility of helping her peers overcome their mathematics-phobia.
Adolescent Clubs in Thally
Vidyashree’s village is in one of the most backward blocks in the district, Thally. It’s hilly, has poor infrastructure and most of its inhabitants are from a low socio-economic background.
The community has limited access to health and nutritional services, children drop out of school for employment and household chores and early marriage of girls is a normal social practice.
To address these issues, UNICEF has been supporting one of the partner organizations, ARCOD, to initiate an intervention with the adolescents since 2014.
“To reduce the school dropout rate and improve the learning capacities of the children studying in classes VI to VIII, adolescent clubs were set up in 60 habitations. Each club is headed by a club mentor, who is responsible for mobilizing the adolescents to regularly attend the activities conducted by the club,” informed Mr Keshavraj, Executive Director of ARCOD.
“The club mentors actively engage the club members in peer discussions on issues affecting them, get them to perform (plays and drama?) to make everyone in the village watch and listen to them, give them the opportunity to develop a sense of individuality and set up realistic challenges to make them believe in success.”
These adolescent clubs in the 60 habitations now have close to 2000 members and 60 club mentors. They meet six days a week after school hours. On the first three days, the activities focus on improving the learning capacities of the members in academics, and on the next three days the emphasis is on strengthening their life skills so as to enable them to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.
The members get to meet each other during annual camps where they demonstrate their skills and talents in the process of peer learning.
Little Champions Asserting FairStart
Vidyashree’s untiring support to her peers and younger members of the club has already shown results. There has been an improvement in academic performance in mathematics, with a 15 percent climb in results—from a baseline of 43 per cent to 58 per cent.
“My friends were scared of mathematics and believed they could never score good marks in the subject. We set a challenge to prove we can succeed in scoring more than 50 per cent. Through group learning and with a sense of determination we have been able to achieve our target. The next target for our group is to score at least 70 per cent,” says the teenager.
The life-skill based orientation in the clubs serves as an indirect tool for empowerment and developing a perspective of gender equality. “Child marriage is not acceptable. It is a violation of our rights,” asserted S. Sathya, a student of Class IX. She and her friends are aware of the perils of early marriage.
“We know child marriage can lead to serious violence and abuse. It can also lead to health hazard as the girl can become pregnant at a very young age. My friends and I have been able to convince our parents to allow us to complete higher secondary education,” she said. The incident of child marriage in the area has witnessed a sharp drop, which has contributed to overall decline in its rate in the district.
The Krishnagiri district which accounted for 44.6 per cent of marriages before the age of 18 years, according to the District Level Household Survey (DLHS 3), now has only 20.8 per cent of child marriages to its credit (DLHS 4).
The dual engagement in academic support and life skill orientation has had a positive effect on school attendance as well. The dropout rate in the Vannathipatti school has come down drastically by 90 per cent. The members of the club have taken up the task to ensure every child is in school.
“We have been able to convince and bring back most of the children to school. We told them if they join school they can be part of our club and enjoy learning,” said Class IX student T. Ranghanathan, with enthusiasm.
The club members have also joined the Swachh Bharat Mission chorus for elimination of open defecation in the village. Young, enthusiastic members like M. Somya, S. Mallarkodi, R.Kumar, and others took a pledge to mobilize their parents and community members to construct toilets and use them.
“In a short span of six months we have been able to convince 50 families to construct and use toilets. Now I have a toilet at home,” informed M. Somya. “We still have a long way to go. But we are determined to get the status of open defecation-free soon.” Indeed their efforts have brought down open defection from 80 per cent to 69 per cent in the Karandapalli village.
Sustainability of Adolescent Clubs
The club mentors have mobilized the key stakeholders—panchayat leaders, ward members, self-help group members—in the villages. They are invited to come and observe the activities of the clubs. During the quarterly Adolescent Club Mela (fair) parents and the key stakeholders get to see the members perform role play, dance and songs on stage.
“Watching their children act on the stage has increased the faith and confidence of the parents. They see value in the learning process. They have come forward to be part of the adolescent clubs. Every parent has started contributing Rs 20 per month, which is being accumulated in the bank.
This amount would help the club to continue its activities after withdrawal of the project,” explained Keshavraj. “The adolescent clubs are now being perceived as Adolescent Learning Centres in the community. Such platforms can provide a fair and equal start in life to every child,” he concluded.