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Setting the Context: Understanding Street Children and the use of Music
By Sikandar M Kumar,
Music Basti, Integrated Development Education Association
Street Children are primarily an urban phenomenon; the transition from state to market-dominated society temporarily weakens communities’ capacity to protect its young members. The isolation of the family in an increasingly capitalist society leads to a weakening of social capital and inequality. The children who are the most affected by these processes suffer from: poor education status, low self-esteem, emotional disorders, violence and exploitation by peers and adults, early and unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, and drug abuse. However, despite the fact that street children are the extreme manifestation of deteriorating social capital and social exclusion, the immediate factors within their urban environment are unique for each child. They are usually some combination of low family income, lack of housing, failure in school, family neglect and abuse, armed conflicts, natural disasters and epidemics.
Some agencies argue that the term “street children” is inappropriate because it creates an artificial category and diverts attention from the interconnected dimensions of child vulnerability – such as child trafficking and prostitution. The UN, on the other hand, defines the ‘street child’ as “boys and girls for whom ‘the street’ (including unoccupied dwellings, wasteland etc.) has become their home and/or source of livelihood, and who are inadequately protected or supervised by responsible adults.” It further classifies street children into three categories:
- Youth in Primary risk: Youth in primary risk are still attached to the family, school, society, but because of poverty or other factors their situation could be compromised in the future.
- Youth in Secondary risk: Youth in secondary risk have weaker social ties and are already exposed to some form of specific risk (such as school dropout, abuse, child labor).
- Youth in Tertiary risk: Youth in tertiary risk are those for whom one or more of the previously mentioned risks are concrete realities. Their ties with society and family are seriously weakened or severed. This group includes children in the street and of the street.
Keeping these disparate views in mind Music Basti, through its evaluations of the condition of children-at-risk, has remained grounded in a very practical perspective of the predicaments confronting the ‘street child’. Irving Epstein in his article, Educating Street Children: Some Cross-Cultural Perspectives, sums it up best when he talks about the universal and generic features of street life and its effect on children. Street life, he says leads to a “public disclosure of private destitution.” He goes on to observe that survival on the street necessitates the abandonment of a futuristic time orientation. Survival becomes a moment to moment preoccupation and for a child in such a situation, the ability to divide and order time so as to imagine, let alone plan the future is an unfamiliar luxury. Street life means ceding one’s entitlement to a private and personal space.
The problem for the street child is expected in a country like India, where inequalities in wealth and privilege are blatant. An uneven distribution of education, as a means of creating or preserving positions of economic, social and political privilege is a serious and recognized vice in India. As if segregated education was not enough of a problem affecting the education system in India, the roles of textbooks in impoverishing the imagination of children and the malicious manipulations of history for political purposes further compound the predicament.
It is hard to ignore the inability of schools to provide education for street children, in spite of a mandate that calls for the provision of education to all children inclusively. Such an observation leads directly to a questioning of the function of educational institutions specifically and all state institutions more generally. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has been ratified by most governments in the world, however, many children, especially from marginalized groups are excluded from basic government education programmes. The education of street children continues to go unrealized and unplanned by most of the Education for all (EFA) action goals. Clearly, here the street child is one who lies outside the ambit of the EFA.
Many organizations and programmes are rehabilitating young children under the age of 14, in shelters, homes, day- care centers or orphanages; however, over and above the provision of housing, clothing and food, institutionalized development programmes for street children do not have the capacity for recreational and cultural awareness in their educational programmes.
What are the possibilities of an intervention into the educational trends in India? The problems outlined above are of three kinds: Firstly, the overall predicaments confronting the street child were highlighted: violence, abuse, exploitation, inhibition and the destruction of any kind of private space. Secondly, the structure of education itself: its unequal dissemination on the basis of wealth or privilege, the harmful interventions of political machinations in the curriculum and prohibitions to the child’s imagination by instruction through poor text books. Lastly, the inability of coping mechanisms like shelters and orphanages to provide any kind of recreational and cultural exposure was highlighted. Music Basti, through its curriculum is a direct response to these three problems. It seeks to create, through instruction in music workshops (conducted by trained and professional musicians) that very private space which the ‘street child’ has been deprived of. The music workshop is a sacred space for the child to express in as imaginative a manner a possible all the thoughts and emotions that had hitherto been repressed. Music Basti is guided by a belief that recreational and cultural exposure through educational programs are essential for children to develop their own self- identity, value orientation and attitudes in life to cope with issues in their personal lives and participate confidently in the communities they are embedded. The following section will detail the complexities of Music Basti’s curriculums as they have progressed so far and outline plans for the future.
Music Basti is driven by a motivation that education extends beyond rote learning or vocational training. An overall education involves access and exposure to art, sports and music if it seriously wishes to be called holistic, and if it seriously wishes to produce well-rounded and balanced young adults. Music education is an enjoyable experience and fills students with enthusiasm, nurtures their creativity and encourages their participation.
Music helps in creating a group goal oriented aesthetic activity when performed as a collective, ensemble or a band. The students set and follow certain goals and this makes possible harmonious efforts towards achieving these goals. Leadership qualities and team participation qualities are built amongst the students. It has also been found that through involvement in group music activities on the high school level, individuals learn to support each other, maintain commitment and bond together for group goals. The process is a significant part of an improved self-esteem. Musical experiences have been said to instill:
1) Positive attitude;
2) Positive self image;
5) Group cohesiveness; and
The relationship between music education and better performance in life is not accidental. A creative society cannot continue without exposing students to the arts. This helps in realizing and later honing their creative skills, which are required for any later interactions. Music shapes our culture and is the great equalizer among people of different racial, social and economic background. Thus, it forms an integral, indivisible part of any form of education. Music should be treated as a core educational focus because it is so vital to a well-rounded education and will pay dividends later in life, no matter the career path taken.
As a response to teaching curriculums for children-at-risk that abide by a belief that theirs’ is a situation of emergency that calls for the dissemination of ‘basic’ skills and training so as to improve chances of survival, Music Basti believes that in order to activate music education for social change, our profession will need to surrender longstanding theoretical assumptions that have nothing to do with social justice and tend to block our advance. One such assumption is the aesthetic notion that music consists of works whose value is intrinsic—in the sounds themselves. Of course, music involves sonic products, but these are created, maintained, adapted, reinterpreted, and appropriated by people in and across musical communities. Accordingly, music and our perceptions of it are always artistic/social/cultural/political/communal—and more. We can learn to conceive of music more broadly and socially by thinking in terms of social communities or practices, i.e. the universal nature of art as an art form. Our musical-social communities are, in turn, embedded in larger, continuously changing societies, cultures, personal interactions, and political patterns. Most importantly, however, there is no reason to believe that marginalized communities and children especially, should be denied access to aesthetic ways of being, such as music and art, due their condition of ‘at-risk’.
 Volpi, Elena, Street Children: Promising Practices and Approaches, Children, Youth and Environments, Volume 13, Issue 1, Spring 2003.
 Epstein, Irving, Educating Street Children: Some Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Comparative Education, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Nov., 1996).
 Child hope Asia: A resource pack for the Promotion of Improved Learning Opportunities for Street Children, United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization.
 Education for all refers to the UNESCO statement of its goal that education be made available for all by the year 2015.