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A life’s work: sharing experiences from the field

Arunothayam Erskine, of CCFC partner organization SPEECH, shares insights from the field in India

Interview by Lipi C. Jobson, CCFC communications manager, India

Imagine rescuing girls from child marriages, dealing with roadblocks to humanitarian aid and navigating the Indian caste system. That’s what Arunothayam Erskine (above, far right) does as project director and 30-year employee of Madurai, India-based Society for People’s Education and Economic Change (SPEECH). The local non-profit is one of Christian Children’s Fund of Canada’s (CCFC) partner organizations helping carry out our mission in the field. We sat down with the director to learn about his experiences. Here’s what he shared:

CCFC: Why did SPEECH start working with CCFC in 1993?
Arunothayam Erskine: Children in Sivakasi were not going to school, [they were] working in hazardous industries with firecrackers and matches; they didn’t realize the danger, [but many people died], and 60 percent of them were children…. SPEECH partnered with CCFC to release children from bondage and help them realize their rights.

CCFC: Can you share an example of a recent successful CCFC collaboration?
AE: Through the support of CCFC, SPEECH has addressed the issues of gender inequality and early, forced marriages. So far, 13 child marriages have been prevented in our target villages in Thiruchuli. One such marriage involved Usha, a fatherless 15-year-old girl [being] forced to marry her maternal uncle who was more than 14 years older than her…. After repeatedly pleading with her mother, she left a complaint in the box kept by SPEECH/CCFC…. Subsequently the issue was taken to Childline 1098 (a 24-hour national Virudhunagar-based emergency helpline), district administration and the anti-human trafficking unit police department. A team rescued the child and put her in a hostel while the government took care of her academic expenses. This [story could deter] other parents in the neighbourhood who intend to impose early, forced marriages on their daughters.

CCFC: What are the challenges of helping marginalized children in India?
AE: Laws in India that pertain to children contradict basic human rights, so implementation is a problem. Moreover, adults are not sensitive to child rights, and children are considered objects.

CCFC: What has been your most memorable moment in the field?
AE: A Dalit — group of people considered to be below the lowest Indian caste — village, consisting of 73 families, was under the control of an upper-caste village. The Dalits were dependent on the upper-caste people for their livelihood, terribly harassed by them … and treated like slaves. The Dalits were empowered, particularly with a SPEECH land-development program. Now that the Dalits are landowners, they employ upper-caste people. Their self-esteem and confidence have been boosted. It was unforgettable to see the positive change that took place.