CHILD DEVELOPMENT NEEDS PROPER FOCUS

Interview with Rumana Husain

SADAF AURANGZAIB
Aug 20 - 26, 2007

Rumana Husain works as Head-Activism & Outreach for the Children's Museum for Peace and Human Rights. She is co-founder and Senior Editor of an art magazine: NuktaArt. She worked with a private school as its head for several years. She is also co-founder of a children's publishing house, the Book Group, and has written and illustrated a number of children's books for different publishers.

PAGE: Tell me a bit about the Children's Museum for Peace and Human Rights (CMPHR) and HREP, when and how it was established, how it works. Whose initiative was to begin this and what was the basic motivation behind this project?

RH: Work on the CMPHR began in 2001 as the need to institutionalize the work of the Human Rights Education Programme (HREP), was felt. HREP had been running since August 1995. Also, the Children's Museum is a valid extension of the HREP which had been working with children and teachers of over 450 schools and 35 organizations all over Pakistan. The HREP was a precursor to the concept of the CMPHR. The work of both these organizations is geared towards the development of a caring, tolerant, humane and socially, economically and politically stable society by providing children with a socially relevant education. The CMPHR hopes to move into its custom-built premises in 2009.

The main person behind both the initiatives is its Director, Zulfiqar Ali, a young man with an alternative worldview. Both, HREP and later the CMPHR are set up on the belief that to meet the demands of the rapidly changing and competitive world, education must be socially relevant and must generally connect to the real world, equipping children with the required skills. The CMPHR, therefore, is envisioned as a multi-dimensional educational space for children and young people that will offer planned opportunities to investigate, interrelate with, reflect upon and comprehend a broad range of social issues in a pleasant, interactive and stimulating environment.

PAGE: When did you get involved with HREP, how do you see your association with it?

RH: I have worked for and with children for almost three decades. Zulfiqar Ali and I had worked together for three years before he founded the HREP. The concept of both HREP as well as the CMPHR had a high appeal for me. I joined in 2001 as Head, Activism and Outreach (my designation), and my responsibilities include all the structured work that we do regularly with schools as well as the exploration of new avenues to expand our efforts at awareness and outreach.

PAGE: What basic problems do you think our education setup has and how is your organization working towards it?

RH: We are living in a violent, chaotic world. Urban decay is not only in terms of the physical and environmental, but it is the intolerance, prejudice, conflicts and aggression against which children are constantly exposed. The most fundamental human rights are disregarded and denied. In such circumstances one would expect education to play a major role in helping children makes sense of the world around them, to overcome apathy, and combat such challenges. Over the years, as part of our Activism strand, a wide array of social activities and events for children are designed and implemented. Most of the work carried out falls under the banner of Campaigns (a single theme is taken up for one or two years) Right-On (a children's membership network) and Thematic Activism (hands-on training in social activism and advocacy for children and teachers).

Most of the activism undertaken with students is discussion and activity based. Students also carry the discussions and debates from the classrooms to their homes, thereby involving parents and families in the process. This provides an entry point to take the impact of the work into the community.

PAGE: What sort of projects and programs is your organization taking up and what is the general response of the public towards these mass awareness schemes?

RH: Through the 'Campaigns' structured activities have provided children with training for community participation and citizenship with the aim of creating a tradition of social activism. From 1995-2002, the activities revolved around the celebration of key international days particularly Universal Children's Day. During this time HREP ran a Spread the Right Word campaign based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The following year a campaign was run on Tolerance as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, with a component on Health and Juvenile Justice. In 2000-2001, a Peace campaign was held which proved to be extremely successful, especially as it saw considerable participation by schools in rural areas. Children all over the country collected an unprecedented two and a half million signatures for the promotion of peace. The vast support gathered by the Peace campaign and the consequential momentum generated by it continued as the Count Me In! campaign. It aimed at involving children in a fight against apathy, as it focused on their unique contribution towards social change, followed by Where will it End? a campaign on Conflict Resolution. We then had a campaign called Richness in Diversity, which is self-explanatory. A Better World is Possible campaign had different components, including No to Weapons and Wars. We are now launching the new campaign We Have the Power! ( the power to think, to believe, to take action).

For all these campaigns, detailed notes and lesson plans in Urdu and English are prepared for teachers and eye-catching posters are printed, which are sent out to schools and relevant NGOs throughout Pakistan.

Through the 'Right-On Network' of young, school-going social activists, training is provided to its members on how to participate in non-violent, democratic decision-making and to become part of a network of like-minded individuals. Children also get involved in various community benefit projects.

Thematic Activism project broke new ground in terms of the depth of learning and sustained interaction with a group of children and teachers for a given period of time around a relevant social issue. The issues that have been taken up include: 'Small Arms', 'Earthquake in Pakistan and Karachi's Preparedness for Emergencies', 'Billboard Menace Reclaiming our Cities from the Billboard Menace'. The excitement and energy with which participants pursued activism and their sense of accomplishment when reporting their results reinforced our belief that children can be engaged in social issues constructively.

PAGE: How can education help improve the poor standard of living, do you think the best investment is to invest in human resources?

RH: Unless an education system meets the critical criteria of developing an interest in issues around us, a tradition of activism; of interacting, participating and contributing through civil society, it will not contribute to national development, irrespective of the spread and quantity of the literate population. As such, the highest priority should be given to developing high quality human resources.

PAGE: What is the future outlook of your organization? How fruitful do you think will it be in general for a common man of our society?

RH: Our stated aspirations say it all:

To contribute towards the development of a socially just and stable society by providing socially relevant educational experiences designed to help children and young people to understand the world they live in and positively alter their attitudes, values, and perceptions with respect to human rights, peace and social justice, develop skills, motivation and willingness to take greater interest in, and make positive contributions to, their local and broader communities.

PAGE: What challenges are there for an organization like yours which is working on a grass root level?

RH: CMPHR is a global first in terms of a museum on social issues specifically targeting children. There are no museums for children in Pakistan, or even in this region. The CMPHR will therefore be a pioneering effort. It is hoped that it will show by example the kind of approaches that need to be taken if human rights and peace education are to take place systematically and innovatively. The CMPHR will provide opportunities to pursue lifelong social learning in an enjoyable environment. Schools will be able to take their children on a meaningful educational field trip for:

1. access to social learning that is relevant and inspiring

2. developing cross-curricular skills

3. learning social behaviour

For all of the above, finding the right people competent as well as committed is a challenge.

PAGE: What has been the government's response towards these projects?

RH: On the Prime Minister's directive, land (1.5 acres) for the CMPHR has been given by the government in Karachi.

PAGE: What budgetary constraints does your organization endure while working towards different projects?

RH: Budgetary constraints are due to the organization not towing the line of donor agencies, etc. We refuse to be donor-driven.

PAGE: How effective do you think these small initiatives can be in enhancing the social awareness?

RH: Hugely effective, as there is a dynamo effect if the initiative has any meat. A small effort can multiply.

We constantly talk about the dismal education system, that a mere 1.8% of Pakistan's GDP is spent on government schools and 15% of these government schools are without a proper building and so on... but even if there are grand buildings, and all other facilities, such as the ones that the elitist schools have, but if they are devoid of raising awareness levels around social issues, not helping children to learn to look around and critically assess and question social institutions and processes, understand issues and form their own informed views on them... then that is a bigger problem.

Small initiatives such as ours can introduce children and adults to the process of advocacy and lobbying and inculcate a sense of importance of involvement in civil society.