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Striving towards Child-Directed Management of Young at Risk Services
By Father Tharakan John
Hyderabad, Mar. 8. The third annual seminar cum workshop of the Participatory Action Research (PAR), now in its fourth year of momentum, was held at the Institute of Rural Studies and Administration (IRSA), at foot of the scenic Kondaveeti hills at Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, India from 5 to 7 of March 2018.
The participants of the PAR seminar
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This was also an evaluation of the 3 year PAR that put the Don Bosco Young at Risk Centres on a definitive path ''Towards Child Directed Management of Young at Risk Services'' in India. The various presentations revealed the progress of the goal of participatory management at 29 centres for the young at risk in 6 south Indian States. The seminar included a participatory appraisal of the PAR programme. Researchers, heads and directors of 12 participating organisations and 29 sub-centres, the National Team of the DB National Forum for the Young at Risk and the PAR facilitation team participated in the evaluation process.

The first part of the programme consisted of presentations from 24 researchers. Besides researchers from the young at risk centres, 6 researchers from various educational settings took part. The seminar-cum-workshop revealed the growth of the researchers and the transformation that they were able to bring about in their settings. Learning took place in a non-academic manner. Learning was for life because it was transformative. The researchers described how they progressed from a dominator model to a more participatory model in their dealings with children and young people. They had been living the talk. As care administrators, they were willing to take the risk of involving the children in decision making. As a result, the children were happier and their own responsibilities as care administrators easier.

The approach the researchers followed was one of problem solving. A manageable or simple issue, first identified by the researcher, was verified in the focus group and re-defined. Issues affecting more people were given preference. Children along with the adults analysed the problems for causes and effects and drew up alternatives, and the means to realise these alternatives. What emerged was a beautiful plan to create an amiable ambient free from those problems. The focus group members distributed among themselves responsibilities for carrying out the proposed means and arriving at the selected alternatives or Success Indicators. The children themselves monitored and evaluated the process in the enabling presence of the care administrators.

The process of PAR adopted was exciting with each researcher exploring the exciting possibilities, each in his or her particular situation. The results were overwhelming. Children who were reluctant to go to class are doing well in studies, food wastage has stopped, and quarrelling and bullying has reduced, if not stopped altogether. PAR on simple issues yielded major results. At a centre for children infected and affected with HIV/AIDS, taking the prescribed drugs on time was a problem that needed to be addressed. Now the children not only take the medicine regularly, their self-esteem has grown, they are doing well in studies and winning awards in various activities and are enthusiastic about life. It became evident that a participatory approach respecting the rights of children had the capacity to unleash the tremendous creative potential of the young.

The presentations revealed the growth of the researchers. Earlier the researchers had been telling about the wonderful things that they were doing following the PAR methodology. Now they acknowledge that the children were doing wonderful things. They were invited to allow the 'ego' or 'I' to take the back seat and permit the children to take the centre-stage.  The researchers also realised that they were not giving anything to the young, they were just facilitating. Participation and decision making were the right of children. They were to take the relevant decisions along with the adults who have the responsibility to accompany them. The meaning of accompaniment, a fundamental principal in the pedagogy of Don Bosco resonated in a fresh and imaginative way.

The presentations from the academic circles, though they joined PAR only very recently, drew accolades from the audience. It became crystal clear that schools could be the nurturing ground for a new socialisation to equality following the human rights approach. The presentations from the departments of Social Work (MSW) and Education (BEd) have opened up possibilities for taking forward PAR and with it the human rights approach to a wider group than just the young at risk.

The presentation on Human Rights Clubs (HRC) surprised the audience because of their reach to over 600 government schools, over 1000 clubs and over 40,000 club members. They have been instrumental in stopping rights violations in schools (getting facilities like drinking water, proper toilets, respect for girls and so on), in the surrounding villages (stopping child marriages, domestic violence), and at the district, state and national levels. They have also taken up international campaigns (such as 'I am Action/2015' leading to the UN acceptance of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030) and club members have also been to the United Nations at New York.  The researchers then discussed on how best to integrate programmes of Human Rights Clubs with PAR which lists Human Rights Clubs as one of the indicators of Active Participation.

There were presentations from the Directors of the centres on their experience of PAR. The Facilitation team also gave their understanding of what happened during the course of the three years at the select centres where PAR was initiated. The turnover of the directors and especially of the researchers was high. This affected the process. The success of PAR, it was concluded, depended on the ''interest'' of the one in charge and the continuity of the researchers.

A difficulty expressed by the researchers and the director was that documentation and reporting was difficult and they requested another methodology that would be ''easier''. The academics present pointed out that research was not possible without documentation. The others pointed out that we need a culture of documenting and reporting what we do. It would not be appropriate that we remain telling stories only; we need to be scientific and professional. The PAR facilitators responded that PAR is difficult and giving up privileges is also difficult, just as life is difficult. There is no easy way!

The discussions became more interesting when the terms like ''child-directed'' were being re-interpreted. Some wanted to go back to earlier YaR goals of ''child friendly'' and ''child centred'' services rather than ''child-directed management'' that was the original proposal. Goal posts were being shifted closer so that the success is evident. The distant goals are not being given up.

A debate on ''participation'' too cropped up. Children's participation was encroaching on the privileges and traditions in decision making. Some in the group preferred participation of children along with the management and care administrators. The challenge was to have ''Children take decisions along with management, not management taking decision along with children.'' It is through such active participation that children will develop their full capacity. Or else, we have the same dominator model will continue.

At the conclusion of discussions on this phase of the project, the first intervention in empowering of children through participatory action research, the directors affirmed that they are capable of taking PAR forward on their own. They wanted PAR to be adapted to the needs of each centre. Further, they wanted all YaR centres to be involved in PAR. They also wanted to take PAR to other sectors such as education and formation. They have understood the value of PAR and feel empowered to go ahead. The National Coordinator, Father Thomas Koshy reminded the group that the Child Participatory Policy evolved from the experience of PAR. He wanted systems to be put in place so that the policy would be implemented using PAR as the methodology. He thanked the researchers, the directors, the National Team and the facilitators for bringing PAR into the lives of care administrators, their colleagues and the many children they work with.

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