Grassroot social work
Center for Research on Pre-School Education
By Persheng Vaziri
October 17, 2001
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
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
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.