Madeeha Ansari, Founder of Cities for Children, chats to Grese Sermaxhaj about her career and how she is helping young people in Pakistan.
Cities for Children was set up to bridge some gaps that Ansari saw then–to help provide children facing difficult circumstances with opportunities to learn, play–and just be kids.
In this exclusive interview with Youth Time, she shares the inspiration behind this idea, what are some changes she witnessed since the beginning of her work to this day, and how this initiative contributes to Pakistan- a country which has over 20 million children out of school.
Investing in Children’s Happiness
As a young professional, she wanted to understand development challenges beyond paper.
“So, I started out working with a very special network of open-air schools in slum settlements in Islamabad, Pakistan.
“This gave an insight into the realities faced by refugee, displaced and migrant families when they moved to the margins of cities,” Ansari explains.
She further recalls that in the beginning of Cities for Children, they had to work hard on building buy-in from their partners.
“In terms of why we wanted to ‘invest in happiness’ for children, how we wanted to build resilience and why mental health mattered for vulnerable children.”
However, over time, the partners realised the value of playful learning.
“Especially in raising motivation for children and building socio-emotional skills; now they approach us for projects and our partner schools shared that they have built extracurricular activities into their timetable.
“On a broader scale, thanks to a changing global discourse, play and mental health are becoming more widely accepted as priorities for young children–we no longer have to work so hard to build a case!”
Cities for Children works closely with local partners who have relationships of trust with communities–schools and protection centres that offer important services to children.
According to Ansari, starting from these, they base the relationships they build with children and young people on shared positive memories.
Happy Hoods and Partners in Learning Programmes
Here she elaborates on how Cities for Children ensures that children from at-risk communities have access to real global opportunities, supportive and sustainable learning environments.
One of their signature programmes is called ‘Happy Hoods’, through which Cities for Children engages and trains cohorts of local university volunteers to deliver creative, playful learning sessions for children connected to the streets.
They designed each of the sessions around a particular theme and worked to build socio-emotional skills for the children.
“As an example, we have previously partnered with a Turkish toy company called ‘Toyi’ and incorporated their kits into the programmes.
“We use these kits to bring everyday objects to life and talk through themes like emotional awareness.
“We also build stories around them, encouraging communication and building confidence through storytelling.”
They linked the Toyi session up with another one around recycling, using everyday low-cost objects for crafts and building further on the same skills.
“Another form of the arts that we bring in during these programmes is theatre–often by partnering with a local drama company and drawing upon their expertise.”
The results are beautiful, Ansari asserts.
“Like I mentioned before, they have led to a change in our partner schools’ entire approach towards the arts and extracurricular activities.
“We like to look at the projects as a ‘spark’, introducing staff and teachers to some new techniques and strategies to build socioemotional skills and also promote wellbeing for the children they work with, whose challenges they are so intimately familiar with.”
Ansari adds that in terms of impact, 100% of volunteers engaged have noted a change in children’s confidence and communication skills by the end of the programme, and staff have shared an increase in empathetic behaviour.
Another key programme under the Right to Read is ‘Partners in Learning’.
“Through this, we have adapted a ‘Child to Child’ model and early learning curriculum, and trained older children to be teaching small groups of younger children in their communities.”
Cities for Children incorporated some Montessori principles and playful activities based on their ethos, and it has turned out to be an important way of keeping young children learning during the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“There has been a demonstrable increase in literacy, numeracy and motor skills for the ‘Little Partners’ – and an increased sense of responsibility, confidence and communication skills for ‘Big Partners’.
A Response to COVID-19 – #BetterWorld Campaign
The #BetterWorld campaign is based on the idea of holding on to hope and building back better after COVID-19.
“The pandemic has disproportionately affected street-connected children, with urban poverty and school closures affecting whether they stay in school. We also see a rise in issues like domestic violence.”
Hence, Cities for Children aims to expand programmes like Partners in Learning, reach more children and make sure that they do their part to keep children in education, while also providing their caregivers with alternative strategies to violence and providing positive experiences in bleak times.
Speaking in more general terms, she shares with Youth Time readers a few shortcomings faced by youth and children in Pakistan today.
“Violence against children is one issue we feel strongly about. Our ‘Maar Nahi Pyaar’ (Care don’t scare) campaign was launched during the pandemic and complemented a nation-wide advocacy effort to ban corporal punishment in places of learning.
“We have been sharing free resources for parents and caregivers to provide alternatives to violent discipline, and plan to create more for teachers.”
As mentioned in the beginning of this piece, Pakistan has over 20 million out-of-school children, with access and quality of education both being major issues, and through initiatives like Partners in Learning, young children are prepared to enter school and to do better, increasing their chances of staying in education for longer.
“Since we base the initiative in communities, there is an element of raising awareness around the importance of early learning with non-literate parents, who otherwise may not have any direct interaction with their children’s learning.”
Finally, she emphasises that Cities for Children advocacy work has been focused on changing the current narrative around children connected to the streets, who are widely viewed either as victims or delinquents.
“Fingers crossed for the future,” Ansari concludes, while mentioning that they always appreciate efforts to contribute to their work.
“Young people can hold small fundraising events and raise awareness of our work in their own schools or neighbourhoods–one creative idea that some students have had was to make a special ‘stay at home’ booklet, shared with donors as an incentive to give to the Better World Campaign.
You can donate funds raised via this page on their website.
Other ways of engaging could be by contributing skills, or sharing their videos and resources on social media.
Madeeha Ansari is a Pakistani development professional, passionate about creating programmes protecting the rights and wellbeing of vulnerable children.
She has worked with organisations across the development spectrum, from community and youth-based organisations in Pakistan to those with an international presence, like the Malala Fund.
Her work with non-formal schools in urban slums in particular provided an understanding of the challenges faced by refugee and migrant children, living in urban poverty.
They also led to her founding of the UK registered non-profit, Cities for Children, to support organisations working with street-connected children.
Madeeha completed her Masters as a Fulbright scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and earned her undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
As a freelance writer, she continues to contribute to mainstream newspapers as well as international media and development blogs.
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