The base of our work started as a spontaneous effort in mid 1997 to engage with 20 working children in the basti of Ganga Nagar, Bhopal. As we facilitated these Gond children’s admissions in the formal school system, it grew on us that we needed to sustain the effort to really make ‘education’ a workable option for these children, and took on the decision to formulate an organization. Muskaan was thus registered in December 1998.
Through the experiences of the Adivasi Gond children in private and public schools, we soon realized that the lack of books and uniforms or home work support were a small problem compared to the challenges the children faced for completing each small milestone of school life.
As the limitations of the formal education system and the realities of poverty and marginalization became clear, the shape of the work kept growing and changing.
For several years in the beginning, we emphasized a lot on children’s admissions and retention in mainstream schools. But the growing submissiveness of children, poor quality of learning in children who had otherwise managed to learn and pick up concepts so fast, or the extreme sense of failure if they couldn’t manage in a specific subject, the ridicule of children’s waste-picking backgrounds and most of all, the children’s own rejection of the system, forced us to accept that schools work very differently for different socio-economic groups.
By 2005, we took the decision that a) we would run our own school, where we would try to give shape to our understanding of meaningful education and thereby to provide a real option for children and communities who were still not really accepted by the school system, and b) work towards improving the government school for making the package of schooling more sensitive towards real growth of children.
As needs emerged considering that the children we were working with were the very first generation accessing formal schooling, our work also evolved to respond to the life challenges and situations of all children, of 3 years to 20 years (and young adults if needed) so that they could progress in the formal schools.
Starting as an education endeavour, the team’s understanding and perspective grew with experiences in the field as well as exposure and learning from the world. New members joining into the team also brought their perspective on poverty and gender and enriched the response of the organization.
A women’s group took on the work of making different products of palm leaves, brooms and later added paper bags to their products. Women from different bastis would meet around a series of health trainings. Managing malnutrition and also building access to government health services has been a continuous challenging area where the community volunteers and our balwadi teachers persevere. To conserve precious money and to provide some relief from loan sharks, the groups started saving and lending money within themselves.
Gender based violence within families and also from the community panchayat, as well as external violence inflicted on denotified tribes through the police and middle class society has been an area where we have persevered with individuals and communities.