Grassroot social work

Non-governmental organizations lead a strange existence in Iran. They do not enjoy official status or funding. They are often regarded suspiciously, but they seem to be increasing in numbers, activity, and productivity.

There are no exact numbers available for all the NGOs active in Iran today, except for those concerned with women's issues, which number more than 60. Many who call themselves NGOs do not fit the definition, because of their religious structure and goals, or their function as charity organizations; and some are money making outfits.

Among the respected ones, several deal with minority issues, some with women and children's education, and some work for the environment. There is very little communication among the NGOs, due to the lack of information and lack of a history of trust and exchange, and very few people in Iran know about their existence. Only occasionally their activities become visible.

During Tree-Planting Day we hear of the Women's Society Against Environmental Pollution who initiated the day, or the Civic Society for Support of Children's Civil Rights, which was at the forefront of the publicized trial of the death of a little girl from child abuse three years ago, a case that stirred the Iranian public.

Internationally too, the NGOs are isolated. For fear of being labeled as foreign agents, they do not actively seek international funding and because of lack of information, the international community is ignorant of their existence and impressive activity.

The Center for Research on Pre-School Education has been quite active, yet not visible. In the field of pre-school education in Iran, the list of their accomplishments is very impressive. The organization started seven years ago, as an offshoot of the Book Foundation that specializes in children's literature, led by a dynamic educator, Mr. Youssefi.

When some of the board members noticed the lack of resources for pre-school education, a group of 150 colleagues took it upon themselves to publish resource books in this field. So far they have published four of these books, but their activity soon grew in other dimensions. The center is made up of seven board members, 10 staff members and 700 volunteers, of whom 80 are quite active.

The 1996 Iran census showed that only 3% of pre-school children in Iran attend kindergarten. Official government-supported education starts from grade one. Because the Ministry of Education does not officially oversee pre-school education, there are opportunities for different methods of education. This is quite different from the centralized system of the primary and secondary education in Iran.

Pre-school education is, for the most part, private, or organized by some large governmental offices, like the Ministry of Petroleum, which provides the service for its own staff. The pre-school centers often just cover the well-to-do and middle-class families.

It is because of these gaps that the Center for Research on Pre-School Education has found the opportunity to exert a progressive influence on the educational system. Since 1999 three impressive goals have been set by this NGO: teaching peace, eradicating sexual prejudice and focusing on the handicapped.

These issues are the focal points in all the different realms that the NGO deals with. In their education handbooks they have changed phrases and content that do not meet these new goals, and have started workshops on these issues in different cities.

In a country that is ruled by Islamic law, they are careful not to offend local beliefs. For example, when promoting sexual equality, they focus on qualities like collaboration, or bravery for women that are acceptable to the masses. They introduce Prophet Mohammad's daughter, Fatima, as a symbol of a brave Muslim woman.

The center also publishes books for the handicapped and creates games that handicapped children can participate in.

In response to a lack of sufficient pre-schools, the Center for Research on Pre-School Education started a program in 40 villages to educate young women to take care of their children. This effort was conducted in collaboration with UNICEF and the Ministry of Agriculture.

Each year, the local teachers get re-educated, and even neighboring villages that are not covered by this effort have started their own programs based on this model. In the same year, the state broadcasting organization was encouraged to allocate a daily half-hour program for young children. It survived for two years, until a new executive didn't see the use in continuing it.

In 1997, with UNHCR help, programs were set up to create child care units in Afghani and Iraqi refugee camps in four border regions. Eight young women from the camps were trained by the NGO volunteers to perform child care. The program met such enthusiasm that in one instance in an 80-square-meter space, 600 children showed up for the class. Such enthusiasm demonstrated to the NGO that all people, regardless of their level of education or wealth, want to educate their children.

In 1997-98 the center trained two thousand pre-school teachers in new methods of education. In disadvantaged villages they started a method of collaborating with the locals. They built playgrounds for kids, or local vegetable stores to help meet the children's nutritional needs. Because of their focus on children they are warmly received in all the villages. Each season 4 or 5 members of the NGO go to the villages with the villagers' cooperation, to continue with training and problem solving.

Mobile child care is another big project they have started in a disadvantaged neighborhood of Tehran. Young women volunteers are trained for a period of one month, then during summer and fall they go to the neighborhoods with a bag containing games, drawing pads and crayons and a light carpet. In the streets and local parks they conduct activities for young children. The neighborhood kids really welcome this program, and even older children get involved, and take advantage of the drawing and storytelling sessions.

The emphasis of the education system is to be non-authoritative and decentralized, and to rely on childrens' own discretions and choices. This system has been very effective and the difference in the childrens' behavior between the early days of the mobile units and the final days is remarkable.

The children enthusiastically participate, and even if a volunteer misses a day or is late, they set up their own blankets and start working. They learn about hygiene and come to the group washed, and well behaved. This program has limited cooperation from the municipality, which welcomes the effort, but does not financially support it.

The mobile day care project has grown to include mothers and fathers. Training sessions for mothers include subjects such as non-violent education, pre-natal care and proper nutrition. In regions where eating meat is costly, vegetarian dishes are taught, and so is . The mothers are in turn encouraged to train other women.

A few cooperatives have emerged that employ women to make and sell fabric books and other educational toys for children. Out of the 300 mothers who were trained, 40 were outstanding and they formed their own groups to help with other neighborhood women. In their work, the NGO has come to the conclusion that the best way to make change is to train children and mothers together. Municipalities are welcoming these efforts, and they have been invited to set up this system in other Tehran neighborhoods and on the Qeshm Island in the Persian Gulf.

The NGO's major challenge is to convince governmental organizations like the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Social Work to support their work. Often pre-school education is looked upon as a luxury. But studies have shown that these efforts are quite effective in training children to take responsibility for themselves, and encourages an education system that is not authoritarian. It promotes participation and civic responsibility.

The center would like to improve its funding resources and be connected to the international community. Mr. Youssefi, the dynamic founder of the organization, stated that in occasional meetings with international fenders, when they describe their efforts and successes, they are met with disbelief, and are thought of as a propaganda tool for the Islamic Republic. This response in spite of the lack of attention and funding from the government in Iran is doubly discouraging; they do not get supported by international organizations, nor by the local government.

Yet they continue their efforts to seek information and conduct exchanges with organizations similar to their own from around the world. Their plan to gain access to the internet will make their goal more attainable. They are planning to create a website to increase their exposure to the international community. Even with all the limitations in their path, their efforts have been amazingly productive.

It is the spirit of volunteerism, the hard work and dedication of the organizers, and the enthusiasm of the mothers and children in their program which has made their work a success.


Persheng Vaziri is a filmmaker / organizer in Tehran and New York.

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