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Families, child rights and participatory research in Nepal
"Children are a bit like chickens they need to be kept safe, guided, fed and loved, observed the grandmother of four young children in the Nepalese village of Biskundanda, with a touch of irony. In many ways this simple aphorism captures the fundamental wisdom of hundreds of millions of parents throughout the world. Most mothers and fathers, even without formal knowledge of the principles of child development or the Convention on the Rights of the Child, know that their children have the right to love and protection, good health and nutrition and opportunities to learn.
Yet, according to a recent study in Nepal,* many of these same parents, and many child development experts, tend to underestimate the significance of parents day-to- day role in the development of childrens broader thinking, confidence and skills those capacities with the greatest significance in helping them grow up able to break the cycle of poverty.
The Nepal study, a model of participatory research, used a child rights framework as researchers talked with parents and community leaders about the child-rearing beliefs and practices of families in four rural villages. Through structured discussions, the study elicited the information needed to develop ECD programmes that are responsive to the rights of the child and relevant to the communities. Its method of collaborative dialogue with parents and families was as significant for protecting child rights as were its findings.
The circumstances of children in Nepal are mixed. On the one hand, child mortality is high, malnutrition is common, sanitation and indoor air quality are poor, and few children receive more than a few years of formal education. Poverty and the continual struggle for survival make it all but impossible to provide adequately for children.
On the other, some children flourish despite the socio-economic odds against them. Many village children in Nepal have a clear sense of self-worth and social responsibility from the parts they play in doing household chores and agricultural tasks, such as herding. When the child is younger, work, play and learning blend seamlessly. Before the chores become repetitive and interfere with education, active learning through work is a source of pride and satisfaction for children and a valuable opportunity to acquire the competence they so desire, as well as the respect of others.
How to explain such positive deviance? In looking at the subtle and contextual processes of childrens development in the natural environment of the home, the study found that seemingly minor patterns of parental behaviour and casual interactions appear to have an invaluable impact on childrens development. One mother, for example, on returning home from a long days work, immediately sits down with all of her four children. She gets them to help her sort the fish she has just caught all the while talking with them about the characteristics of the fish, their size, colour and taste. She takes an interest in what the children have to say and has even brought home a tiny crab for each child so that they can play crab races.
The Nepal study also considered the larger context of family and village life. It looked at the village setting, at social and economic realities, at gender and caste issues, at culture and the process of change. In many ways the study found no surprises: Families are naturally concerned with all aspects of a childs life and, on a day-to-day basis, they are most responsible for defending childrens rights.
The big question for ECD initiatives is how to make them work. The study recommends the adoption of a child rights framework for assessing how well adults, at the family, community, district and national levels, are meeting their obligations in ensuring childrens well-being. An essential component of such an approach is the ongoing dialogue with parents and community members on key issues for children as a basis for action. Many child-rearing practices, both positive and negative, can have a taken-for-granted quality. In responding to the opportunity to reflect on their beliefs and daily routines and to discuss them with others, parents begin to take a more active, confident role both in reinforcing their traditional strengths and in working together to introduce new practices.
Child development experts and families have a lot to learn from each other. The challenge for those working for child rights is to find the way to accentuate local practices and listen to parents concerns sensitively and cooperatively, and at the same time find ways to address and debate practices that are at odds with child rights principles. They must strike a balance between encouraging traditions that are good for children while contesting those based on caste or gender that undermine their rights. They must both value the children are bit like chickens idea and go beyond it.
* The child-rearing study was a joint initiative of Save the Children Alliance members (Norway, UK and US)/ UNICEF/Seto Gurans National Child Development Services/City University of New Yorks Childrens Environments Research Group/Tribhuvan Universitys Research Centre for Educational Innovation and Development.
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