The coronavirus pandemic arrived quickly, quietly, and everywhere. In the space of days, we at Global Fund for Children went from wondering if our grantee partners would be affected, to supporting dozens of locally-led, grassroots organisations struggling to maintain operations in the face of mandatory lockdowns. As countries worldwide implemented strong social distancing policies to prevent the disease’s spread, grassroots organisations could not operate as usual and pivoted to equipping their communities with the information and resources they needed to fight the virus. The challenges these organisations face, and the solutions they are developing, are consistent globally, as is the courage they demonstrate in the face of terrifying uncertainty.
This moment of courage is sparking solidarity among people from different walks of life now facing similar challenges. It takes courage for nurses and doctors to treat coronavirus patients suffering alone in hospital wards. It takes courage for a mom in New York City who just lost a job to remain patient while attempting to help children navigate online learning and worrying about keeping enough food in the house. From India to Ghana, it takes courage for families who’ve lost their income to persevere, especially those who normally work in precarious and exploitative conditions. And it takes courage for organisations like Avani and Challenging Heights to help these families in India and Ghana who find themselves at even greater risk now than before.
We had hoped to celebrate Avani and Challenging Heights, our 2020 Juliette Gimon Courage Awardees, in London this month, but early on in the crisis it became clear that we’d need to delay that event, so we are committed to celebrating them virtually. These two organisations share similar stories. Both were started by individuals who experienced the very exploitation their organisations now exist to disrupt.
Anuradha Bhosale, Avani’s vice-chair and founder of its children’s projects, was forced into domestic work at the age of six in Maharashtra, India, where there are half a million child laborers. Now, her organisation provides a range of programs for these child labourers and children at risk of exploitation.
James Kofi Annan, founder and president of Challenging Heights, spent seven years as a child slave in the fishing industry on Ghana’s Lake Volta, where 20,000 children have been trafficked into modern slavery. He started Challenging Heights to end this practice and promote children’s rights.
And now, with COVID-19 affecting daily life, the people they serve are at even more risk, without access to food, lacking medical treatment, and subject to violence stemming from fear and misinformation. Avani is supporting families from the brick kilns and sugarcane farms by distributing grain boxes to 700 families this month. In spite of the lockdown, Avani even managed to prevent one girl from undergoing forced marriage by working with the police to rescue her, and by transporting her to a child welfare home where she is now safe. In Ghana, Challenging Heights has procured hygiene materials, protective gear, food, and medical supplies and is ready to do more, as there is concern that Ghana’s three-week lockdown was not sufficient to flatten the curve.
It’s in circumstances like these that truly local leadership shines. Both Avani and Challenging Heights are trusted in their communities, which makes them effective brokers of information. They are both nimble, able to pivot quickly to provide essential urgent services while continuing their core work. They are both rooted firmly in their communities, and they won’t be going anywhere when the COVID-19 crisis has finally passed.
As powerful as these truly extraordinary organisations are, they do need help. It’s Global Fund for Children’s job to identify courageous organisations like Avani and Challenging Heights, to provide flexible funding, and to support them beyond the check by connecting them with information, people, and resources to help them become even more effective.
The courage exhibited by Avani and Challenging Heights, two organisations solving similar problems in different parts of the world, demonstrates the larger point. We are all facing similar challenges during this pandemic. My hope is that we won’t just go back to normal, but that we’ll achieve an increase in empathy and understanding, as everyone on the planet feels more vulnerable, more protective of their elders, more worried about paying the bills, more concerned about earning a living wage, and even more focused on keeping kids safe, and healthy, and learning.
John Hecklinger is president and CEO at Global Fund for Children