A total of 61 children of grades PP to VIII, from the communities of Tshanglajong, Zurphey, and Goling, including the two Lifeline Child Representatives – participated in a weeklong camp on Art & Child Safeguarding organized by Save the Children – Bhutan Country Office in collaboration with District Education Office, and Tshanglajong Primary School, Zhemgang. The activity was funded through Sponsorship Fund. Professional artists from VAST Bhutan (Voluntary Artists Studio of Thimphu) introduced the children to different medium and style of sketching, drawing, and painting. The children had hands-on and fun-filled interactive learning with the art resource persons as they tried to learn different techniques, mediums, and styles of drawing, sketching, and painting. They had field trips to try their hands on different subjects.
11-year old Damchoe Wangmo studying in Grade 5 in Yebilaptsa Central School said it was a ‘break from the work she had to do everyday at home ever since the schools closed.’ All schools in Bhutan closed in March 2020 as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. In August the school opened only for children of Grades 9-12.
“I hope the school will reopen soon. I don’t like being at home as I have to help my mother, or provide voluntary labour contribution to the community in maintaining road, water supply lines, and or working in the field transplanting rice, growing vegetables, or picking oranges and carrying it to depots,” she said.
“Only at night I have the time to borrow my father’s phone and do class assignments and submit it. We are always out working during the day,” said Dorji Pema, a 16-year old Grade 8 student.
“I could never watch the online lessons on the BBS,” she said, as also reported by the 61 children who were interviewed.
The participating children also reported of increasing scolding and beating they got from their parents when they were home as schools were closed due to the COVID 19 pandemic.
“I got beating for not washing clothes, utensils, or for playing,” said Jamyang Rigyel, 12. Most parents of the children used alcohol, and quarrels and fights eventually broke up often ending in a divorce. Such was a case for 7-year old Dokdo who suffered cognitive disability but had only his grandmother taking care of him.
9-year old Rigzang Selden’s parents were divorced and lived separately in another district. She spent her time looking after the three children of her aunty and uncle with whom she lived. Older children of 14-16 years of age, and especially girls reported they may not go back to school again, and rather look for employment, or a partner, marry and settle down. “To avoid the unwelcome and unhealthy environment at home,” said Phuntsho Choden, 16.
The ART Camp provided a welcome break from their daily chores to the children, and it was hoped it will help them overcome anxiety and instill a sense of normalcy.
Talking to the participating children it was evident that children in remote villages in Zhemgang have been particularly hit hard by the loss of an entire year of regular schooling as school remained closed due to the COVID 19 pandemic since March 2020. Beside missing the normal teaching-learning in classrooms, they missed Ministry of Education’s remote education support imparted as part of the Education in Emergency through the national television as they did not have television sets at home, or the time to watch it. Most did not have access to internet or smartphones at home so they also missed lessons and assignments the teachers sent using social media platforms.
As a result teachers walked to children’s homes and communities to support learning and development of the children. But this could not be conducted regularly due to stringent movement rules during and after national lockdown.
During the Camp, as a pilot test the parents of the participating children, local leaders, and prominent community members were invited to the Camp where they were engaged in discussion and were sensitized on child safeguarding issues, on child abuses, children dropping out of school, early marriages, parents using alcohol, and parents beating and abusing children and its harmful impact.
Parents accepted to the use of alcohol, of being beaten and abused by their spouses, and they beating and abusing children. Early marriage, unplanned child-birth, poverty, alcohol use, and divorce seemed to be the vicious cycle the community found themselves caught in. To break it required a sustained, innovative, and a participatory approach.
Children and their parents also attended sessions on children’s mental wellbeing imparted by the counsellors from the Youth Centre in Zhemgang.
More than 70 colourful canvases in oil, water colour, and oil pastels were produced at the end of the week-long Camp depicting the hopes and aspirations of these remote children whose already difficult life was only further compounded by the impacts of COVID 19 pandemic.