Child-to-Child: A Challenge for Children, Health Workers, and Activists
At its best, Child-to-Child is a hands-on learning adventure with empowering, even liberating possibilities. Begun in 1979 during the International Year of the Child, Child-to-Child activities have been introduced into more than 60 countries.
In disadvantaged communities, older brothers and sisters often spend more time caring for their younger siblings than do their parents, who often have to work long hours outside the home. So teaching older children to help with the food and health needs of the younger ones can make a big difference in terms of children’s well-being and survival.
The purpose of Child-to-Child, therefore, is to help school-age children learn more about the health, safety, and developmental needs of their ea younger brothers and sisters so that they themselves can take action in meeting those needs.
At its best, Child-to-Child is a hands-on learning adventure with empowering, even liberating possibilities.
Child-to-Child activities focus on a spectrum of problems and needs. For example, the `Diarrhea' activity helps children learn how to prepare and give the sick child a special drink (oral rehydration therapy) to replace the liquid lost in watery stools. The activity `Making Sure Young Children Get Enough to Eat' encourages older children to help make sure younger ones are fed energy-rich foods several times a day. It also stresses the importance of adding concentrated energy foods like vegetable oil to young children’s meals. Other activities cover such topics as accidents, hygiene, toy-making, and care of the teeth.
In Child-to-Child the methods are as important as the content. Children learn about meeting the needs of their younger brothers and sisters through a series of exciting, discovery-based activities. One of the tacit goals of Child-to-Child is to help transform—or, some might say, subvert—conventional education so that it becomes more relevant to children’s immediate needs and lives. At its best, Child-to-Child helps children (and teachers) develop a thoughtful, open-ended approach to problem-solving.
The challenge with Child-to-Child is to help the children make their own observations and draw their own conclusions rather than to just pour information into their heads like soup into empty pots. Because it equips children to better meet immediate needs in their families and communities, Child-to-Child can be a truly enabling process.
Unfortunately, as it has been introduced in many parts of the world, Child-to-Child has fallen short of its revolutionary goals. Too often the teaching becomes unimaginative and top-down, consisting merely of telling the children what to do and training them to parrot back `health messages'. They learn about instead of learning to.
Or, worse still, children are left out altogether. Many of the most touted and best-funded `workshops' on Child-to-Child are conducted as a series of lectures by doctors, psychologists, and representatives from such organizations as UNICF with no children present. As a result, theory is emphasized to the complete exclusion of practice. Ironically, the Second World Congress on Child-to-Child was held at a luxurious conference center in Belaggio, Italy, where signs on the gate said “No Children Allowed.”
In contrast, when Martín Reyes helps to introduce Child-to-Child methodology, he always insists on the active participation of children.
Martín is a village health worker who now works with Project PROJIMO, a rehabilitation program run for and by disabled young people based in the tiny settlement of Ajoya, in western Mexico. Twenty-six years ago, when he was 14, Martín began working with Project Piaxtla, the community-run primary health care program based in the same village.
Martín has extensive experience with Child-to-Child. In the last several years he has gained international recognition as a gifted facilitator, and has helped various Child-to-Child programs get started. During 1991 Martín helped to initiate activities of this sort in Mexico (Oaxaca), Ecuador, and, most recently, in Nicaragua. Martín is emphatic that any seminar introducing the idea of Child-to-Child must center around activities with children themselves. “Learning-by-doing” is the key to a successful program.
The Managua Workshop
The Child-to-Child workshop in Managua was in many ways a great success. Of the 105 participants, 65 were children. Health workers and community activists from a range of settings came together, each bringing one or two children from their area. Some participants came from remote rural areas, others from the cities, and a few were street kids.
The most uplifting aspect of the event was the group dynamics, both among the children and between children and adults. At first, kids from different backgrounds were wary of each other. But in the course of the five-day workshop barriers collapsed; soon they all played and learned together with abandon. Also, barriers between kids and adults broke down, giving way to intergenerational play and a rich exchange of ideas. Through exploring Child-to-Child possibilities together, grownups and children gained an unusual level of respect and appreciation for one another.
The workshop focused on child-centered activities in three main areas: community diagnosis, management of diarrhea, and disability.
The activity on disability was a real awareness raiser, mainly because of the enthusiastic participation of disabled persons themselves. Two physically disabled health promoters facilitated the exercises for sensitizing the group to the needs and possibilities of the disabled child. In addition, leaders from Los Pipitos, a nationwide organization of families of disabled children, brought along several disabled kids to participate and share experiences. All of the children marveled at the ability of a little blind girl to read from a bumpy sheet of paper with her fingertips (Braille) and asked her to teach them how to do it.
The disability activity included games for testing the hearing and sight of younger children. The value of these games was dramatically illustrated when the children discovered that two of their own group had moderate to severe hearing loss. The first was a little girl who never paid attention during discussions. No one had guessed why.
The other was a boy whose mother (also at the workshop) was distressed about his difficulty with speech. Doctors who had examined him had not detected a hearing loss and had diagnosed him as mentally retarded. Now, thanks to the children’s discovery that his problem may be related in part to deafness, the boy can be taken to an audiologist. Perhaps with a hearing aid his speech will improve. At a minimum, he will be given a seat in the front row at school so that he can hear the teacher more clearly. This could make the difference between his staying in school or dropping out.
A Child Who Overcame Terror: the Story of Darling
On the last day of the Child-to-Child workshop the children were divided into three groups and asked to present something they had learned, in the form of skits, stories, poetry, song, or in any other way they pleased. The group responsible for preparing the presentation on disability decided to put on a skit about testing vision in a classroom.
An amazingly capable, dynamic 15-year-old girl named Darling took the lead in organizing the children and planning the skit. She played the role of a mean, bossy teacher. The teacher was especially mean to a little boy, called Pedrito, who tried to hide in a back corner of the class. The teacher would write words on the blackboard and order Pedrito to read them. When the boy could not, she called him lazy, stupid, and worthless.
Then the teacher was called from the room by the principal. As soon as the teacher was gone, a boy m the class stood a and said, “I just got back from a Child-to-Child workshop in Managua. We learned to test each other’s eyesight and hearing. I think that maybe Pedrito doesn’t answer the teacher’s questions because he can’t see what she writes on the board.”
“Well, let’s test his vision!” said a girl. “Teach us how!”
So the boy pulled out of his pocket a folded paper with an `eye cart' that the kids m the workshop had made the day before. The children proceeded to test each other’s vision. Sure enough, Pedrito proved to be near-sighted.
When the teacher came back into the room, the whole class stood up and confronted her. They explained that Pedrito had trouble seeing things at a distance and needed to sit up front, closer to the blackboard. “It’s not his fault that he can’t see well,” they told her, “so please stop scolding him!” The teacher apologized to Pedrito, asked him to sit up front, and promised to write in bigger letters on the blackboard.
After the children presented the skit at the final plenary gathering that afternoon, everyone applauded loudly.
Then Darling, who had played the teacher, raised her hands for silence. Speaking completely impromptu, she proceeded to sum up the larger meaning of the skit, and of Child-to-Child. Her words were so eloquent and full of conviction that everyone was riveted to what she said, which went something like this:
In too many of our schools, teachers pick on the kids who are slowest or weakest, or who need the most help. They scold them. They humiliate them. Then they flunk them. We children must stand up for those among us who are weaker or different, and defend their rights to dignity and respect. We must never again permit the strong to terrorize the weak!
In Child-to-Child we have learned many things. Above all, we have learned that those of us who are a little bigger or more able need to protect those who are smaller and weaker. Let us hope that we will remember this lesson when we grow up, so that we will join the struggle for a new society - one where the strong can no longer take advantage of the weak, and where we can all live in peace as equals.
Throughout the workshop, those of us facilitating had been impressed by Daring: her inner strength, her humanitarian vision, her leadership capacity . When we discussed who from the workshop might make the best `multipliers' of the process, Darling’s name headed the list.
Not until the workshop was over did I learn the story of Darling’s past. She had grown up in a village which in the mid-1980s had been attacked by the Contras. At age eight, she had watched as her family was tortured and killed, and then she had been sexually abused.
For weeks afterwards Darling had been in shock, unable even to speak. But she was placed with persons who gave her the love and understanding she needed to gradually rediscover herself and find the courage to move forward with life. In the long run, it seems that Darling is a stronger and wiser person for what she has lived through - that, somehow, her suffering has given rise to strength.
In the wake of abandonment there needs to be reconciliation: hands that reach out to shelter and empower.
Darling’s transformation is not unique. Years ago in Mexico, at a gathering of leaders of community initiatives struggling for people’s health and rights, we tried to pinpoint some common thread of experience that haled us on our unusual paths. Our backgrounds were very diverse. The only thing we all seemed to have in common was a strong sense of abandonment in early childhood.
This is not to say that all abandoned children become committed leaders in the struggle for change. In the wake of abandonment there needs to be reconciliation: hands that reach out to shelter and empower. Under the Sandinistas, whatever their flaws, there were humane social structures that did their best to nurture and provide for children who had become victims of the war, economic hard times, or other social problems.
Causes of Ill Health - Through the Eyes of a Street Child
Early in the workshop, in order to help the youngsters think about the health needs in their homes and communities, we asked each child to draw a picture on a large sheet of paper of something related to his or her own life and experience. Most drew pictures of a house with flowers around it, and called it “their home.” But one little boy named Juan Carlos drew a church.
Next we asked the children to add to their drawings something that related either to good or bad health. Most drew such things as protected or unprotected wells, children shitting on the ground or in latrines, and so on. But Juan Carlos drew a police car in front of his church with four human figures around it. Red lines extended from the top of the police car, indicating that its light was flashing. When asked to explain his picture, Juan Carlos pointed to a small human figure with a bag in its hand. “This boy stole something from that man,” he said. And, pointing to the guns in the hands of two other figures, he added, “These policemen are shooting at the boy.”
Juan Carlos is a street child. Every night, when the other kids at the workshop went to bed, Juan Carlos would slip out and return to the streets of the inner city. When confronted about this, the boy explained (and the street educator who had brought him confirmed) that at night he returned to the street to look after a still younger homeless child. The younger boy, he said, would feel abandoned if he didn’t return to spend the night with him.
It occurred to us that this 11-year-old street boy, small for his age and with a speech impediment, was truly living Child-to-Child while the rest of us were just playing at it. During the closing ceremony of the workshop, Juan Carlos was applauded as a role model for the other children, and was resented with a set of colored marking pens. He was so delighted that he wept.
Still, when the workshop came to an end, Juan Carlos returned to the streets. His life will not be easy or secure. His shocking drawing of ‘events affecting health’ from a street kid’s point of view gave us insight into the severity of the risks that he and others like him now face.