In India, a mission to create families for abandoned children

DELHI -- Giving childcare in a world where orphans are on the decline, but more children are living without their biological parents.
Written by Betwa Sharma, Correspondent

DELHI -- The SOS Children's Villages, founded in 1941, is an Austria-based global non-profit organization that takes care of orphaned and abandoned children. The SOS Villages are not orphanages. Instead, the SOS model creates a family unit with a mother who cares for eight to 10 children that bond as siblings.

SOS was founded by Hermann Gmeiner, an Austrian philanthropist. The organization is based on four principles: a mother, brothers and sisters, a house and a village.

Siddhartha Kaul, an Indian, was recently appointed the global head of SOS, which now operates in 133 countries. Several years ago, Kaul's father started SOS in India, which now has the highest number of the Villages.

Kaul says that orphans are decreasing in many countries. But the number of children who cannot live with their biological parents is increasing.

SmartPlanet spoke with Kaul about the new thinking and challenges of taking care of children. Here are excerpts from a lengthy discussion; portions have been edited or paraphrased for brevity. SOS has set a goal of providing childcare to more than 600,000 children by 2016 and a million by 2020.

SP: Why is there an increase in children at risk?

SK: More and more women now have to venture out of their homes to earn livelihood. The families or part of them have to migrate in search of employment. Furthermore the support systems are nothing to write home about. The concept of joint-family is not as strong as it used to be. There is almost negligible state investment in day-care and childcare systems. The lack of child protection systems further adds to the problem.

SP: The SOS Villages currently provide for 6,600 children in 33 villages, as well as 16,634 children through its Family Strengthening Program, which prevents the breaking up of families. That still leaves many children without support.

SK: An estimated 20 million children in India do not have pre-natal care. I am often asked by people in West that why India, with its booming economy, can't take care of its children. Fortunately, our new generation is highly conscious about the social causes. And the good news is that it is also coming forward to help. We are witnessing increase in our supporter base, although I would have loved a much faster pace.

SP: What are your funding challenges, in the wake of the European economic crisis?

SK: SOS hopes to increase its donations in BRIC -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- plus 10 countries. But the challenge is that these markets are still getting ready to raise substantial funds. The fundraising infrastructure -- experienced staff, good postal and Internet services, and the mindset of the people to contribute towards social cause -- is still work in progress.

SP: Your local funding is low -- just 20 percent comes from India, versus 80 percent from Europe.

SK: For several years NGOs in India relied largely on grants from abroad. The practice of asking local populace is relatively new and awaits its tipping point.

We are now trying to reach out to people in their preferred way for communication. We appeal to them by writing letters or emails, making phone calls, meeting them in person and even through Facebook. This should increase contributions made to us in next few years. The approach to partner with corporations on Corporate Social Responsibility has also been strengthened.

SP: And what about education for the children?

SK: According to ILO's Global Employment Trends for Youth 2012 report, nearly 75 million youth are unemployed around the world, an increase of more than 4 million since 2007. Caring for children must include providing education that will enable them to get jobs. Speaking more broadly, the number of children that continue education beyond primary schools is still far from satisfactory.

We have to enable our children with education and tools that hold them in good stead in future. If SOS youth are not properly prepared for tomorrow's world they may end up joining the teaming mass of unemployed, something SOS family can ill afford.

SP: And healthcare?

SK: Providing both preventive and curative healthcare is an integral part of the SOS system, which includes immunizing children, ensuring proper nutrition and monitoring their growth. SOS programs have trained health workers and doctors to ensure health care to each child.

More importantly the children having undergone trauma are provided the much needed psychosocial support. Our health programs model the needs in a particular country, for example, SOS Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, is the only such facility for several kilometers at a stretch.

SP: How do you select an SOS mother? Why this emphasis on emotional support?

SK: Selection of SOS Mother is a very thorough process. In most countries we advertise widely, stating the kind of candidature required and the kind of work it will be. At times women interested in working with us approach on their own. Once selected, they undergo an intensive training on child care for 2-3 years. During this period they also help an existing SOS mother. Only after this they independently start providing care to children as SOS Mothers.

On an average each mother looks after 8-10 children of mixed age group. In some countries there are specified numbers of children that can live in one home. We follow what is allowed under the local laws. The mothers receive a modest salary and retirement benefits.

The long term bond that the child forms with mother and siblings is core to emotional support. The concept of mother, siblings, home and village as a community has worked well for 63 years across 133 countries and territories.

SmartPlanet also spoke with Anjali Sharma, an Indian journalist in New York, who grew up in an SOS Village in India.

SP: What was it like, coming to an SOS Village?

AS: There are so many great memories from my childhood, growing up in SOS village which I cherish till today. I really don't know where to start, I think as many of my colleagues and friends say to me that I should write a memoir. Let me begin with my beloved SOS mother, late Tarawati Sharma, who nurtured me. Although I have two different versions how I came to SOS Village -- Holy Family hospital, in Delhi or Shishu Bhawan in Patna. I was put up for adoption. I don't know which one is true. And to be very honest I have never ever had any urged to find out the circumstances or any desire to search for my biological parents.

SP: What was it like growing up in an SOS Village?

AS: I was the youngest in the family, bit pampered I must say by my mother and my siblings. I am very close to all my brothers and sisters till today. We are 14 of us and I speak to each of them every weekend. They all are happily married with children and grandchildren. In fact, I became great aunt so to speak just last September.

SP: How do you feel about the SOS Villages program today?

AS: The model of SOS is unique and it shouldn't change. Every SOS child should realize that this is an opportunity that they have to avail and not to let it go. I think we as a society should support SOS in every way and bring awareness to the outside world, especially in the US, where people hardly know or heard of SOS Children's Villages.

Photos: SOS Children's Village India; Anjali Sharma

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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