Although recent perspectives on ‘multiple childhoods’ have convincingly argued for the need to recognise children’s lives as heterogeneous and culturally inscribed, the figure of the ‘victimized’ child continues to test the limits of this framework, especially in the context of children from “disadvantaged” social groups , and young girls. Within the mainstream discourse and policy documents school is widely considered as the panacea which will bring change and betterment for children, especially for those from vulnerable backgrounds. However, current literature on child labour and children in poverty has highlighted both the desire of marginalized populations for formal schooling and at the same time the school functioning as a space that is inherently disrespectful of their present life situations. Most children from disadvantaged social groups that attend school can be distinctly observed as becoming docile and limited in their expression. They are not being taught or exposed to democratic values that honour diversity or education for becoming empowered individuals.
Inherent within the idea of school is a construction of childhood as a period of dependency in which education and socialization are required to train passive, immature children into adulthood through guidance. Recent sociological and child development research and literature on children in poverty have challenged the above construction of childhood as inappropriate especially with regard to a large number of working children in the third world. Within the Indian pluralistic and diverse contexts different perspectives on children and childhood have in fact been found to coexist . Within both the urban and rural settings, the inability of several children to devote the required time for schooling, combined with the social distance between their daily lives and the worlds that are encompassed within schools, often means that their experience of schooling is a struggle during which they gradually begin to experience rejection and so internalize their inability to learn in terms of an innate failure.
In the last few decades Elementary Education in India has seen the emergence of ambitious macro programmes like the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), and the more recent and mammoth Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA).The canvas of Education that is being looked at through these programmes is vast, diverse and complex. Yet when viewed through macro lenses we are faced with the homogenising brushes of generalisations and number games, and with the challenge of losing sight of important issues of specifics based on diversity. This has often resulted in de-contextualised programmes which are mismatched to the needs of many learners and teachers and therefore remain irrelevant and ineffective. Their distanced objectivity has made them mechanical and ineffective for supporting access to meaningful learning skills, knowledge and tools for critical enquiry.
It is important to acknowledge that children are naturally wired to learn and make sense of the world around them. They bring with them their enthusiasm, their openness; sense of justice and their compassionate response to others, Adults can be weather beaten and at times cynical and wary of any possible change because of their conditionings to the ‘real’ world and its challenges; whereas children still have hope and the belief that they can change the world. Their efforts can also serve as a model for other youth and adults. If children have had a positive experience of participation in the democratic processes of knowledge building, critical thinking and development of their communities, they carry that experience with them into adulthood, and are able to engage with the contemporary world as critical thinkers, lifelong learners and active, empowered participants.
Access to relevant information can become empowering. Information if accessed and processed thoughtfully and skilfully can lead to meaningful self development and learning which has the potential of becoming a part of a community’s collective thinking. This process is not centred on any expected immediate behavioural outcome but it gives self-esteem and confidence to the young. They are able to see connections between apparently disconnected events or processes and unravel deeper dimensions of factors that influence their day to day lives. These can can translate into not one, but many actions for oneself and others. Against this backdrop the building of definite platforms for children to give voice their questions; to provide access to relevant information as well as guide processes of collecting, collating and critically processing information; is viewed as a means of involving village youth, especially adolescent girls and young women in processes of learning and self development. OELP has initiated a Bal Manch’s or youth fora as a part of each library with this focus in mind.