International Writers Magazine: Volunteer Travel
& suffering amongst Indias poorest children
A country with a dizzying mix of cultures, languages and religions,
all merging together to make a unique cocktail of sights, sounds
and smells. India is home to over a billion people, making it
the second most populated country in the world. It is also home
to devastating levels of poverty, illiteracy and exploitation.
always a dream for Heather Campbell of New Zealand, but it was something
she felt she had always been too busy for.
So, at the age of 53, she realized she did have time, Heather volunteered
with the Global Volunteer Network (GVN) for a month in India. A retired
Physiotherapist, Heather was able to put her medical training to use
by helping to develop programs for disabled children.
Volunteering in India provided Heather with the opportunity to get amongst
a society completely different to her own. We did a lot of traveling
around the countryside, looking at existing programs. We met families
in quite isolated, very poor rural areas who had disabled children that
lived in quite impoverished conditions, just seeing if we could, and
how we could provide some help.
She was shocked to see the conditions these people lived in, especially
in some of the fishing villages she visited. Describing one house, Heather
said the house had a dirt floor and the sides of the building
were constructed with platted ferns and platted palm leaves, you could
imagine what thats like in the monsoon.
They have very little furniture; they dont have a wheelchair
for a child with cerebral palsy or anything like that. They dont
even have beds; they just have a thin mat like wed lie on the
beach in the sand in.
India is still under the grips of an ancient Hindu caste system which
the people of India must live, marry and die under. This system results
in extreme poverty for the dalit people who are considered
to live outside the four castes. People within this group are treated
as if they dont exist, and the dalit have living conditions
which are considered some of the worst in the world.
Some families exist on as little as two or three hundred rupees
a month, which converts to six to nine New Zealand dollars, says
Heather, reflecting on her trip. It is very difficult to imagine
the circumstances, how these people live their lives on a daily basis,
let alone without the added difficulty of having a child with a physical
or mental impairment.
I came across a family who had a child with spina bifida, and
the mother told me that the way they coped with this is that they dug
a hole in the sand, they were in a fishing village, and then they buried
the child in that hole up to his waist each day, so that the child could
be upright. Then it seems like he was more normal.
There was another village that we visited that had literally been
built on a rubbish dump, and their job was to scavenge the rubbish,
so if you could imagine your dwellings being just a few meters away
from this stinking heap of refuge. Its very difficult to think
of these people having to live in these sorts of conditions all their
Despite the intense poverty, Heather was able to see the positive aspects
of the trip.
I never saw so many smiley children in all my life she says,
laughing, and they had absolutely nothing, I never saw them with
a toy, yet they all played, and ran around, and they were happy, and
they laughed, but they just had nothing. Some of them didnt even
have clothes, maybe one item of clothing, maybe one t-shirt or one pair
of pants, but hardly ever both.
India has some shocking statistics, surrounding the quality of life
for its inhabitants. Every year in India, almost 2 million children
will die before their first birthday, due to extreme poverty. Only 61.1%
of the population is literate, and child labour is still a big problem
Due to sex-selective abortion and infanticide, there are only 927 girls
for every 1,000 boys under the age of 6. This is the most imbalanced
ratio in the world, and it is declining each year. The Indian government
is attempting to address its massive overpopulation, and poverty issues,
but still has a long way to go.
One particular memory that sticks in Heathers mind was visiting
a rare government funded centre for disabled preschoolers.
The first time I went there I was pretty shocked, and pretty appalled
at how it was all working and happening. There was just one small room,
with all these people sitting on a concrete floor, there were really
no toys about, no stimulus for the children. One child would be treated
at a time by a therapist, who wasnt a physiotherapist; she just
called herself a therapist. It was the same treatment for every child,
which was very forceful, and my first impressions were that it was really
quite cruel and barbaric. The child screamed its head off, as this woman
forced spastic limbs through full range of movement says Heather,
recalling the trauma.
But, youve got to put it into perspective and think this
is rural India, you cant compare it to how we would do things.
There are lots of really positive aspects of bringing together
these families. Its offering support for these parents,
and providing a place where they can meet and socialize with other parents
who have children with similar problems. The clinic is open five days
a week, and there is some sort of treatment going on there, so maybe
we can build on this, and start introducing other treatments.
Those treatments included exercise programs to learn how to use their
limbs to the best of their ability, by propping, rolling and balance.
Also, Heathers team was able to assist by donating a box of toys
Upon returning a while later to the same centre, Heather was surprised
and proud of the progress that had been made. It was just such
a different atmosphere, and when we opened the door and went in, every
child had a toy in his hand, or the mother had a book in her hand showing
it to the child. Unfortunately the child on the treatment table was
still screaming, but it was like this is progress. Youre
working within their system, and youre helping them to achieve
better outcomes, and perhaps just introducing things that will help,
but working along side of them. We werent saying hey, you
are doing this all wrong, and this is awful, and you shouldnt
be doing this, we were just showing them that there are other
ways as well.
I didnt think we were going to make any major changes or
do anything like that, but little things happened, sometimes it is nice
just to think that you make a difference, even if it is only a very
small difference. I enjoyed being a volunteer, I enjoyed
the sense of purpose that we had.
Heather is keen to recommend volunteering to the more mature traveler,
and sees volunteering as a useful and satisfying experience. Although
we might be older, I think sometimes years bring a certain amount of
experience, practical experience. The more that older people volunteer,
the better for the program! Its quite different from being a tourist,
but its really worthwhile, and I hope more people do volunteer.
To find out more about volunteering see www.volunteer.org.nz
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