“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world”– Malala Yousafzai
Once I had started my studies in UCD in 2015, the value of what education means in a broader sense remained. In my second year I applied for UCDVO, where I was accepted on their North East India (Assam) project in 2017 and as a student leader in 2018. The project here operated in two-fold, the key objective of the project is education thus, particularly important for SDG 4, “Quality education”. Collaborating with the local university there, Assam Don Bosco, a team of Irish volunteers and Indian volunteers studying social work in the university worked together renovating ‘Anganwadis’ (pre-schools) in the local area as well as conducting workshops, responding to issues identified during house visits around the community. Throughout the organised workshops and other various activities, awareness and education on local issues such as alcoholism, human rights, domestic violence and health & hygiene as well as support with English enhancement classes were completed. However, the main priority and objective was the renovation and completion of the anganwadis.
Upon arrival to the host villages many of the anganwadis were desolate and not a space for pre-primary education, the walls were often covered in mould due to dampness, there was often little educational resources on the walls as a result. Furthermore, many of the anganwadis had holes in the roof. When monsoon season would arrive educational time was disrupted and often cancelled for days on end due to flooding within the anganwadi. This is not reflective of SDG 4, ‘Quality education’. Furthermore, the local anganwadi and lower primary schools where we were working are part of a school lunch programme whereby all children enrolled in the local school and anganwadi avail of a free healthy lunch meal on the premises. This sheds light on the importance of the anganwadis as a multipurpose building, even though they are monumental for pre-primary years for young children it also facilitates SDG 2, ‘Zero hunger’. In addition to this anganwadis offer a safe space for women in the community to meet each other as well as receiving necessary health checks, which is promoting SDG 3 ‘Good health and wellbeing’. This small building is so versatile in its use, though it may appear relatively insignificant from the outside it is in fact instrumental in relation to ensuring communities of their basic needs and rights, access to education, health care and nutrition. It is a small part of the larger puzzle of what sustainable development is and means as a concept and in practice.
Over the space of four weeks, the Irish and Indian team worked collaboratively with the host community, mobilising community support and engagement with the renovation of the anganwadi and workshops. It was a clear depiction of strong links and partnership as outlined in SDG 14, and the benefit of such partnerships were evident particularly in the outcome of the project. We did this by attending house visits outlining the plans to renovate the local anganwadi and encouraged community support alongside informing us of any issues or queries they would like us to facilitate in workshops that would be held in the local school in the evening. It was from this moment the foundation upon which great collaborative effort and morale was formed, all having one main goal; to provide the community with adequate and appropriate resources for their anganwadi. By the end of each week the team was delirious with fatigue, but the outcome was worth it.
The work was intense both mentally and physically. The work consisted of the following; fitting a new tin roof (facilitated local village laborer’s), the breaking up of concrete floors, carrying the bricks out, relaying the bricks and cement into concrete floors, waiting for it to dry, sanding the inside and outside walls, painting anti rust coats on the shutters and doors, painting the outside of the building, painting the entire inside of building with a white wash, mixing paint for the walls, drawing educational resources on the wall (this was particularly challenging for me as I cannot do art), ensuring the toilet was linked to the required pipes and renovating it. My team of Irish and Indian volunteers had a daily routine of meeting before we commenced work, we made a list of jobs to be done and what the plan for the evening workshops would be. This was done daily to ensure all jobs were done effectively and efficiently.
Despite this hard work, we had great guidance and support from the biados (meaning sister in Assamese and what we called the anganwadi teachers). She would advise us on what they wished to have painted in their classrooms, advocating within the community to rally support and awareness about the work being done in their anganwadi and she would encourage local mothers and children to drop in and lend a hand or to see what work was being done. The biado would have arrived an hour or so earlier than us to prep the anganwadi, make us chai, liaise with the local school principal and governor of the town, she did everything in her stride to make us feel welcome and shed light on the importance of this building for the education of the local children and their and well-being. Her passion for quality education was ignited by her own struggles and barriers to attain an education of her own. Her attentive nature and willingness to support the local community was evident and clearly inspired from her own journey. For me, this was the perfect illustration of SDG 4 and SDG 5 ‘Gender equality’ and its importance, a young woman striving for her own quality education, overcoming cultural barriers and paving a path for herself, which is now returning full circle as she supports her community to attain and access quality education for all. Her work and efforts as well as the sheer hard work put in by volunteers as well as renovating the anganwadi was reflected and evident the following year as there had been a large increase in enrollments of pre-school aged children to the anganwadi. This was according to a returned UCDVO volunteer who had volunteered with me the previous year.
Upon my arrival home in 2018, I was at the point in my life where I had to think about what my next steps were. I was so moved and inspired by my experiences volunteering in North East India, the people I had met and the experience I had. My time volunteering with UCDVO has taught me many lessons and has had such a great impact on me. With these newfound experiences and lessons, I was equipped with the tools to enter the next stage of my life. For the last year and a half, I have been working in homeless youth services, which has made me reflect on poverty in Ireland. Despite Ireland being part of the global north, I find myself being able to identify many of the SDG goals within our society, such as SDG 4, SDG 1 and SDG 3 to name only a few. It is evident walking through the streets of Dublin City, the level of poverty that is right under our noses. Social Justice Ireland highlights that without social welfare payments a total of 40.9% of the population would be in poverty, rather than the 14% living in poverty now. This 14% makes up over 689,000 people living in poverty, over 200,000 of these are children. The work I do is to support young people to access appropriate services based on their needs. Funnily enough, with all the young people I have worked with there are several recurring key needs and basic rights where they need support. Access to appropriate and affordable housing, to re-engage into education, training or work as well as access to appropriate healthcare. Although it is important to note that poverty is relative to the circumstance you live in, thus, poverty in Assam is very different to the poverty experience in Ireland. However, the core support needs identified in the work I do in Dublin are similar to the core issues that were identified during home visits in Assam, which was often education (literacy), access to work and healthcare which has been impacted by their social environment. Furthermore, through my volunteer and work experiences over the years I have learned that despite your circumstances of living in either the Global North or Global South, basic needs, particularly access to education, need to be met in order to sustainably support people out of poverty.
“Education is education. We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow… Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human.” – Malala Yousafzai
About Author Name: Seánagh Fitzpatrick Volunteer Sending Agency: UCDVO Award: Bronze SDG: 17 - Partnership for the Goals