Promoting child welfare amid an oil spill and a pandemic

By Kyra Gurney | March 22, 2021 | Africa & The Middle East | Education, Freedom from Violence & Exploitation

After three decades defending children’s rights, Halley Movement faced its biggest challenges yet in 2020. Over the past year, the organization has provided crucial support to young people dealing with unprecedented difficulties.

In the late 1980s, Mahendranath Busgopaul, in his capacity as a teacher, grew alarmed at the prevalence of physical punishment to discipline children in schools and homes in Mauritius, an island nation off the coast of Madagascar.

“A group of teachers, together with me, said, ‘This is not normal. It’s against the rights of the child,’” Mahendranath recalled.

He and his colleagues launched a national awareness campaign and conducted a research study on the issue. “It was at that time that we realized that we needed to have an NGO working for the rights of the child,” Mahendranath said.

Over the next three decades, Halley Movement grew into a coalition of charitable organizations dedicated to child welfare with dozens of volunteers. The organization has provided education to children who are excluded from secondary schools; launched youth entrepreneurship programs; and operated a national helpline to support children and their families.

A workshop with mothers in Mauritius.

A workshop with local mothers on good digital parenting. © Halley Movement

Meanwhile, Mahendranath juggled his work as Halley Movement’s Secretary General with his teaching job, and later with roles as a school principal and a chief school inspector before retiring from education. “I was very busy,” he recalled.

As Halley Movement has grown, the organization has forged partnerships with the private sector, government institutions, and other civil society organizations.

It hasn’t limited its work to Mauritius. Through its partnership with GFC, which dates back to 2003, Halley Movement has attended workshops with other civil society organizations in Africa and built connections across the continent.

The organization currently collaborates with child-focused groups in Benin, Kenya, and Madagascar, as well as the United Kingdom, distributing informational materials and sharing lessons learned from its work in Mauritius.

Halley Movement has a lot of information to share. The organization often conducts extensive research projects and community outreach before launching a new project.

“As an NGO, talking from an NGO point of view, we can’t just embark on a community program without knowing what the community, the leaders, the state, and the other stakeholders are wanting,” Mahendranath explained.

In one research study, Halley Movement discovered that many children who hadn’t passed primary school had been excluded from the secondary school system and were stuck at home because they were still too young to qualify for internships.

The organization created a program to provide literacy, math, and computer courses to these children. In order to foster intergenerational support, it also enlisted senior citizens to teach sessions on positive values. Once the children had completed the education program, Halley Movement helped them find internships.

Halley Movement has also successfully advocated for a law forbidding child marriage in Mauritius and launched informational campaigns to educate parents and children about internet safety.

But even after decades of experience supporting children, 2020 was an especially challenging year for Halley Movement.

The organization saw a large increase in traffic to its free online and phone-based counseling service, Helpline Mauritius, which serves children and young people, as well as women, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. The helpline provides advice on a wide range of issues, including domestic violence, child marriage, trafficking, education, and social media.

A Halley Movement press conference

A Halley Movement press conference on Helpline Mauritius. © Halley Movement

“Mauritius is a small island, so whenever people need any advice, any counseling, whatever the subject may be, they call to Helpline Mauritius,” Mahendranath explained.

During the pandemic, Halley Movement has had to hire more counselors and provide them with the necessary tools to work from home. GFC supported Halley Movement, which had already graduated from the partnership, with an emergency grant.

The pandemic wasn’t the only challenge families in Mauritius faced in 2020. An oil spill from a ship that ran aground off the coast in July 2020 devastated local fishing communities, preventing families from sending their children to school even when there were no pandemic-related lockdowns in place. This tragedy also increased the traffic to Helpline Mauritius.

“During that challenging period, they called us,” Mahendranath said. “So far as education and counseling was concerned, they had one open door, and that was Halley Movement’s Helpline Mauritius.”

Mauritius went back into a nationwide lockdown in early March, and as the pandemic drags on, Mahendranath expects that the increased demand for counseling services will continue. Luckily, Halley Movement has a lot of experience – and a strong network of allies – to weather the storm.

Header photo: An event celebrating the release of a Halley Movement report on internet safety. © Halley Movement

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