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Children on a journey to a better future..
Life Skills: A Key to Women’s Empowerment

In India, the Magic Bus programme shows us how young people can realise their dreams, reports Tessa Jowell.
Published in The Telegraph, UK. For the original article, click here 

Sulhita (it is not her real name) looks at me with a measured gaze and tells me that her parents have forbidden her to take a job as a youth leader with Magic Bus. They want her at home looking after her siblings so that her mother can work – sorting and selling rubbish from the huge tip that is one of the main sources of income for the slum dwellers of Mumbai. The argument that by taking the job she would bring more money into the family misses the real point. She is a girl.

Sulhita’s is a common story for girls in India. Often indentured to domestic work, faced with child or arranged marriage, subject to routine physical violence, kept out of school. It is with the young lives of such girls – and boys, too – that Magic Bus has been engaged for the past 10 years.

In a journey described as from childhood to livelihood, the programme’s activity-based curriculum uses a combination of games and teaching about education, gender, health and hygiene. The games build the physical, social and personal skills. Young people like Sulhita are trained as mentors and role models for other children in their community. Children who graduate from Magic Bus have a distinctive self-confidence and presence. Nearly all end up pursuing higher studies or enrolling in a vocational employability programme. Today, the Magic Bus programme is run in 10 states in India and reaches 250,000 children. The immediate ambition is that it should reach one million children by 2015.

For the past seven years, I have spent about a week each year with Magic Bus as a volunteer. I have participated in all aspects of the organisation, from taking children on camp to feedback sessions with the young mentors and being an ambassador with potential investors in the organisation. Crucially, Magic Bus is alone among non-governmental organisations in having access to communities where there are so many young children who can benefit from its work.

My involvement came about in part from the frustration at the “hit-and-run” visits I made when a Cabinet minister and which are part of a Secretary of State’s programme. My first visit was a scheduled half hour with “opportunity for the Secretary of State to interact with children”. I wanted to do more.

The conditions in which the children live in the slums of Mumbai or Delhi are appalling. Rubbish everywhere; tiny shed-like structures that are home to thousands of families; the stench; up to 10 people living in 10 sq ft. All this in a country with an economic growth at a rate of which the UK can only dream but where inequality is brutal, with just 50 people controlling a quarter of India’s wealth.

In trying to inspire youngsters from such deprived backgrounds, it is always easier to stimulate ambition than to see it realised  So many of the young people I meet want to be doctors, lawyers, footballers, air hostesses, nurses, accountants. But there are no role models or mentors who can be the guides up this ladder of aspiration. The schools that teach slum children are not geared to their level of expectation. So while in the first instance the best mentors or role models come from the community, after that outside resources are essential. Hence the importance of the links gradually being developed with BMW and other major companies. Two per cent of Indian young people undergo vocational training; in South Korea it is 90 per cent. But training loans are charged at punitive interest rates of anything from 30 per cent to 36 per cent.

It is clear that the future of India is girls. As one business leader observed: “Put money in the hands of women to make microfinance work.” But when one thinks of how much girl talent remains unrealised in every one of our schools, how we have a persistent gender pay gap and how there are still so few women in senior positions in business, you will appreciate the scale of the problem in India.

Magic Bus is making a difference – and it does so by getting the best possible value for money. It is careful to avoid duplication with other charities but helps maximise its impact in partnership with organisations such as the UN’s International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef). And this approach is working, with Magic Bus children 75 per cent more likely to be in school than other children, 40 per cent more likely to understand that violence or abuse towards them is wrong, and 70 per cent more aware of the vital importance of health and hygiene.

Magic Bus and its success is part of our 2012 London Olympic legacy. The sport and development programme International Inspiration was created to honour the promise we made when awarded the Games in Singapore in 2005 to transform a generation of children around the world through sport. Now in 20 countries, the programme has touched the lives of 12 million children, including those from the Indian slums.

These are not just examples of help for the disadvantaged being delivered from thousands of miles away. They also remind us of how the childhood of so many of our own young people can nurture dreams that against all the odds they can, with help, realise.

Dame Tessa Jowell is a Member of Parliament & former culture secretary of the UK Government (Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport) and an ardent Magic bus supporter.