AANGAN, THE MUMBAI-BASED CHILD PROTECTION NONPROFIT that Suparna Gupta MC/MPA 2013 had built from scratch, was pivoting. Over 15 years, Aangan had evolved from a small group of experts devoted to arts-based processes for psychosocial work with children in state-run facilities to a large multistate operation working with government officials to institutionalize better standards of care.
Following a rejuvenating year at Harvard Kennedy School, Gupta felt it was time for Aangan to take another step forward. Rather than working with children post-harm—runaways, victims of trafficking, criminal offenders—when they were already in an institution, how could the nonprofit keep them out of there in the first place?
India’s Ministry of Home Affairs calculates that every year about 100,000 Indian children go missing and more than a million are victims of trafficking. Nearly every other girl in India is married before the age of 18. And Save the Children India estimates that a sexual assault on a child occurs every 30 minutes.
Gupta decided that she wanted her work to reach children before they began falling through the cracks, so she concentrated her energies on just a handful of “hot spots”—districts where children were known to be particularly at risk. Her organization focused, as it had in the past, on building relationships with official agencies and working with children through small groups. One day, a woman came into a session with teenage girls.
“She came in,” Gupta remembers, “and said, ‘You’re doing this work with adolescent girls. That’s very nice, but why aren’t you working with mothers like us? Because we were also child brides, and we could be very different parents if we knew more about our rights, or how to get together and approach officials.’ And we realized this was a great idea, because who else is as concerned about their children as their parents, and who knows more about the community and has such credibility? Here are the mothers, ready and able. So it was a natural choice to have them become the backbone of the work.”
Aangan estimates that since then—working with community members as well as local, state, and national authorities—the system that it created has protected more than a million children from trafficking, child marriage, dangerous work, sexual exploitation, and violence. That system is now scaling up, being adopted more broadly by police departments and other government agencies.
Gupta’s path to this work was part accident, part destiny. She was working in advertising in Mumbai, enjoying the vitality of her colleagues and the environment. But as she approached her 30th birthday, she stepped back to examine her life and had the gnawing feeling that she was not where she was supposed to be.
“I kept feeling, ‘This is not home; this is not what I am meant to be doing,’” Gupta says. She had volunteered during her time at school and college, working with disadvantaged adolescents, and had always felt that she belonged to that work. “I think it just came from the satisfaction of volunteering and understanding the power of it,” she says. “And I have to say, it was very much for myself. I just remember thinking, I want to do this. I need to be doing this. This is my purpose.”
After talking it through with her family and preparing for the transition (“Starting a nonprofit means you take the world’s biggest pay cut”), she began her work. She realized that she had neither the specific training nor the specialized knowledge of India’s complicated child-protection system. But a visit to a notorious state-run children’s home in India convinced her that she should nevertheless try.
“The thing that came to mind when I first visited a state-run children’s home was that it was just like a zoo, just these long cages with children,” Gupta says. “Children who have been abused, exploited, and hurt in the worst possible ways are just bundled together and thrown into this system. That’s when I decided that I was going to work with the most vulnerable groups of children.”
Gupta thinks that her naivete helped her get through the door when she went back to the same children’s home and proposed her idea to the superintendent. “I think he looked at me and said, ‘This silly lady is unlikely to report me or rock the boat, unlike others who have come in claiming to help.’ And initially, I didn’t.”
But Gupta did push ahead. She put together a small group of psychologists and people from the arts—theater, drama, storytelling. They went into the home every week and worked with some of the approximately 500 children there. The work expanded from one home to include eight more in the greater metro area. She realized the importance of building trust with the authorities who were running the homes. But the Aangan team knew the conditions were terrible and that after they left, the children were back in an unforgiving environment. If children tried to run away, they might even have their arms broken as punishment, Gupta says.
One day, during an exercise in which the Aangan staffers were asking children what they would do if they were in charge, one 8-year-old boy said that he would run the home not as a prison but as an ashram. Struck by the comment, Gupta convinced state officials of the importance of listening to the children in the system and was entrusted with surveying children and ground-level staffs statewide. The small Aangan group fanned out to hundreds of homes across the state of Maharashtra.
The standards-of-care tool that Aangan developed as a result accounted for the concerns of staffers and the complicated regulations that governed their work but also, critically, the voices of children in the system. Gupta gave an example of what was happening when children went unheard: The authorities had invested a substantial sum to build bathrooms in one home, and official inspections noted the facilities. But the children explained that they were unable to use them at night because they were locked in their rooms and had to use their sleeping areas as toilets instead. Aangan was appointed by state departments of women and child welfare to audit children’s homes and train functionaries across Maharashtra. They later took the audit to 15 of India’s 28 states. “I realized that it’s exciting to be able to affect the system and not just deliver a one-off service,” Gupta says.
As Aangan’s work expanded, so did its goals. With another milestone approaching (this time her 40th birthday), Gupta began to look upstream. “When you meet a child in state care, you are meeting them very late in their journey related to harm,” she says. “So they would have been harmed at home. They might have left, been exploited, three or four times over. I started thinking about what we should be doing preventatively. What should we do to catch the harm much earlier?”
Her year as a Mason Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School energized Gupta as she stepped back and looked at what Aangan had achieved and where it could go. That year not only gave her time to think and taught her the intellectual framework within which to consider the nonprofit’s work; it also validated a lot of what she had done and boosted her self-assurance. “Whatever we had tried suddenly had a framing and a name,” she says. “I started to value lessons from the field, and that gave me huge amounts of confidence and energy.”
The “hot spot to safe” model that Gupta launched after returning from HKS now focuses on seven districts across the country. For this project, Aangan has trained 18,000 women volunteers who have worked with 5,000 government officials and 300,000 families, having an impact on a million children from marginalized, vulnerable groups.
Through the COVID-19 epidemic, the nonprofit used its dense network of volunteers to make sure that the most vulnerable families in those seven districts had enough to eat and that child-headed households dealing with COVID deaths were linked to community care. Aangan distributed mobile phones because social distancing meant that communications had to be handled differently, and was able to feed 10,000 families during India’s strict lockdown period. With lockdown exacerbating interpersonal tensions and causing a spike in domestic violence, the group also worked to find safe spaces for those most at risk. The network mobilized to help adolescents either orphaned by the epidemic or facing mental health issues as a result of isolation. “I think the big lesson for us from COVID is that when you have a primed, trained group on the ground, they can take over whatever needs to be done, whether it links to climate, epidemics, or local emergencies,” Gupta says.
In two of the states where the hot-spot model has been tried, the police will now expand the model more broadly. When the pandemic eases and children begin returning full-time to school, Aangan will be pushing state education departments to expand the model through school systems, and cities to use it through municipal systems. “The idea is to demonstrate that investing in local-community child-protection workers makes sense, and that doing so will strengthen state child-protection systems,” Gupta says. “Aangan’s role will be to provide tools, trainings, and ideas that bring officials and citizens together for this important work.”
Gupta does question whether Aangan is trying to address more social problems than it can actually take on, but she believes that the key to her team’s work is the power of listening to the most vulnerable. “When care and protection systems for children are broken or nonexistent, you have to think holistically, work from the ground up, and put time into the community-strengthening work,” she says. “I would love to have a tidy silver-bullet solution, but at the end of the day, communities must be active participants in this kind of changemaking work.”
Banner image: A woman with her child waits at the railway station amidst the crowd in Mumbai, India. Photo by Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times/Getty Images