Her commitment and dedication to the cause of child welfare, women's empowerment and female infanticide have, over the years, seen lives being transformed. Despite positive outcomes, Andal Damodaran feels there is a long way to go.
For a person like Andal Damodaran, past president of the Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW), New Delhi, past president of the International Forum of Child Welfare (the first Asian and woman to hold the post) and currently vice-president of ICCW, Tamil Nadu, social work has always been a way of life, second nature so to speak, in the DNA even.
“I was drawn to it early on as I realised there were so many gaps between the haves and have-nots,” she states. Although initially she worked with NGOs in all fields her focus, however, has always been on disadvantaged children who were denied even their basic rights. “If you do something for children in their early years you make a difference to the entire family.”
After schooling in Kolkata, marriage brought Andal Damodaran to Cuddalore in the 1950s. “Subsequently I was nominated to the State Social Welfare Board for Cuddalore District. While today the Board is seen as an inspecting authority, back then it involved handholding of the NGOs to various degrees. Although I was a member for Cuddalore district, I travelled extensively.”
Thereafter Andal Damodaran relocated to Chennai with her family in 1973. “While the Guild had a lot of members who were up in society, I gained hands-on experience at the ICCW.”
Andal Damodaran's dedication, commitment to the cause and her leadership skills saw her serving as secretary of ICCW, Tamil Nadu, for a record 25 years and as national president of ICCW, New Delhi (there are 30 State councils across the country) for six years.
A notable project that she spearheaded and which had far reaching impact is the one to stop female infanticide.
“When I joined the Indian Council for Child Welfare, we had 14 balwadis and one training centre for the balsevikas. I saw scope for much work. Back then we were working a lot more in Chennai than the districts. My goal was to expand to the districts. Some of us joined together and started a project to fight female infanticide in Usilampatti in 1986.”
One step at a time
Detailing the strategies used to bring about a change in mindset, Andal says, “We started with 10 villages which expanded to 350 villages. After getting to know the community we started Self-help groups (SHGs) through which we began empowering the women by helping them earn from small enterprises like poultry farming with assistance from International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Simultaneously we would encourage the women to contest the panchayat elections, discuss local problems and talk to them about the role of the girl child. If a woman was pregnant and she already had a daughter we would urge her not to kill the baby upon birth, and offer support with schooling options for the older child. We also started a cradle baby unit. It was a receiving centre and for 60 days the abandoned newborn was kept there. We have seen a generational change in the last 20 years and recent statistics show that there are no reported infanticides in our area. Today the SHGs themselves monitor the situation; they counsel and convince the mothers, and only in very difficult situations ask for intervention by our staff. Bringing about attitudinal change in people is a slow process. We need patience and perseverance.”
Andal Damodaran and her team also realised that it was important to reach out to all sections of women and not just the mothers. “We began simultaneously orienting adolescent girls because it would be too late by the time we approached the mothers. We also offer career counselling and started a community college, besides talking to them about issues concerning the girl child. At the end of the year the girls would take an oath promising not to play a role in female infanticide directly or indirectly. All this would not have been possible without local people helming the respective district units like Valli Annamalai who looks after the Madurai unit.”
One of the lessons Andal Damodaran learnt in Social work is the “need to draw more people in and create a second line so that over time others will step in and the projects will sustain and continue to be professionally run.
At the ICCW, Tamil Nadu, I have very capable team-mates in Chandra Thanikachalam, a lawyer, and Girija Kumarababu, a professional social worker, who has years of experience.”
Adoption is another area close to Andal Damodaran's heart, and as chairperson, Central Adoption Resource Agency, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment Govt of India (2000-2004), she did path-breaking work to ensure that ethical adoptions happen.” I strongly feel that every child needs a family. Institutional care should really be the last resort and can never replace the love of a father and mother. When I started doing work in Adoption in 1980-1981 there were no guidelines and rules and the programme was being misused. Later I stepped away from direct adoption and began looking at adoption guidelines in order to ensure that we do ethical adoptions not only in Chennai but throughout the country, and thus protect the interests of all parties — the child put up for adoption, the mother surrendering the child and the adoptive parents.”
While there are numerous other areas of concern that affect the lives of children, Andal Damodaran recalls with satisfaction the ICCW Tamil Nadu's role in fighting child labour in Vellore and elsewhere.
From playing a catalytic role in building toilets for girls in schools in Srivilliputtur to encouraging girls to continue school to initiating multi-disciplinary training as part of Response to Child Abuse by bringing together doctors, lawyers, social workers, Government officials, child welfare committee members and working on protocols, to preparing a shadow report on the UN Convention for Child rights to see how far the rights have been realised where the gaps are and how far away we are from translating them into reality, Andal Damodaran's work has seen her studying and taking up crucial issues and making a difference to the lives of children.”
What does someone like her who has spent over five decades working for children feel about the status of children today? “It has certainly improved. In the last 10 years there has been a big shift. Any work that was seen as a charity with children being the beneficiaries is today seen as a rights issue — right to protection, right to education and health etc.”
In the coming years she predicts that the structure of NGOs will change. “There will be less full time volunteers and more paid professionals. The voluntary sector has to become professional, accountable. NGOs shouldn't just do flashy programmes but look at the long term impact of an issue, at policy, budgeting and from a State and national perspective so that we create a better future for children. Huge work still needs to be done. There is a country-wide dislike for the girl child if you go by the dwindling sex ratio.”
Even a seasoned social worker like her has her highs and lows.
“At times you feel overwhelmed; you get cynical saying the same thing workshop after workshop, consultation after consultation. Then something sparks off and you hear that somewhere some children have benefited as a result of collective efforts and then you are recharged. Every child is important,” concludes Andal Damodaran.