Poverty continues to shape the experience of children in India as it impacts many areas of their lives from health and education to future opportunities, according to a new research by Young Lives India.

The research, compiled in a book titled ‘Changing Lives in Andhra Pradesh: Young Lives Children Growing Up’, found that children and their families may have higher aspirations, but their chances in life are often heavily influenced by where they are born and their family circumstances.

On a cheerful note though, most children and their families now believe that education is key to improving their lives and social protection schemes like Mid-Day Meal Scheme and MGNREGS often act as cushions for such families.

“How children experience poverty is critical to bear in mind while designing social policies,” says Renu Singh, country director, Young Lives.

The study captures the voices of Young Lives children and their families based on a long-term qualitative research; it also tells how children in Andhra Pradesh see their lives and give us a unique insight how their lives are changing as they are growing up.

“Children’s own understandings and perspectives serve as a major component of Young Lives research. Children as social actors are capable of providing essential information about the way in which poverty impacts their lives and well-being,” says Uma Vennam, Young Lives’ lead qualitative researcher. “Parents are making tremendous sacrifices in order to enable their children to have better life than their own. As eight-year-old Dilshad’s mother, who works as a domestic help, says, ‘We are willing to forego one meal a day so that our children can get good education. These days education is very important.’”

There is an encouraging trend in terms of school enrolment, but gender disparities continue to exist. Eight-year-old Shanmukapriya and her brother Prashant both attend a low-fee private school in rural Andhra Pradesh. Her mother says, “Shanmukapriya is a girl; we won’t give her higher education. And in the case of Prashant, we will make him study as much as we can. We want our only son to get a good education. We have up to 10 grade in the village school for Shanmukapriya. We will see what happens after that.”

Despite best efforts, limited resources often force parents to make difficult decisions. Eight-year-old Vishnu belongs to a Backward Caste family; he studied in the government primary school till grade I and then was sent to a private residential school 30 km away. According to Vishnu’s mother, “Even if we have to spend money, it is the only way to secure his future.” His parents had to shift him to another private school as the previous school raised its fees from Rs. 8,500 to Rs. 12,500 per year. Vishnu shares, “I was very sad when I had to change school but my father insisted on it because of the high fee.”

Situations in the families also result in children dropping out of school to support families. Fifteen-year-old Salman had to drop out of school when he was in grade I. He is currently working as a driver and his family still struggles to make ends meet. He wants to educate his younger brother. Sixteen-year-old Ravi had to leave school at an early age to work and pay a family debt.

When Harika was 13, she had missed school occasionally for a couple of months to help her family in the cotton fields. At 16, she is in a junior college in a nearby town and staying at a girls’ hostel. She says, “I wanted to study but my parents said ‘no’ at first. Then when I insisted, they agreed.” The family is getting marriage proposals for Harika but they have said that she will not get married for the next four to five years. 

Young Lives is a long-term international research study investigating the changing nature of childhood in four developing countries — Ethiopia, India (Andhra Pradesh), Peru and Vietnam — over 15 years, the timeframe set by the U.N. to assess progress towards the U.N. Millennium Goals. The study is following two groups of children in each country — 2,000 children who were born in 2001-02 and 1,000 children born in 1994-95. Through interviews, group work and case studies with their parents, teachers and community representatives, the study collects information, not only about their material and social circumstances, but also their perspectives about their lives and aspirations for the future, set against the environmental and social realities of their communities.