Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Located on the banks of the River Ganges, the city of Varanasi is famous as the holiest of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. A rapidly growing city, its population increased nearly threefold in the decade from 2001 to 2011, and today, and housing stock has struggled to keep up with migration.
As a holy place, Varanasi has traditionally produced saris, carpets and other fabrics. Silk-weaving is the dominant manufacturing industry to this day. However, less than a third of the population is employed.
Women hardest-hit by poverty
Recent research carried out by Varanasi's District Urban Development Agency (DUDA) suggests that nearly four out every ten people in Varanasi live in the city's slums. Here, chronic illiteracy and a lack of primary healthcare for young children perpetuates poverty. Homes are unsafe, and there is no access to basic services and infrastructure. The absence of waste collection means rubbish piles up at roadsides and near to living areas, while waterlogged sewers and drains pose serious health hazards to children and adults alike.
India's latest census put literacy in Varanasi district at 77%. However, the figure varies dramatically for men and women. While as many as 85% of men can read and write, literacy among women stands at just over two thirds. In the slums, parents are often illiterate, and many see little benefit in sending children to school when they could be engaged in more useful activities such as begging for money.
A childhood blighted by sickness and malnutrition
Children living in Varanasi's slums work because their families need them to, or because they don't have any families at all and are forced to support themselves. Many of these children find work in the tourist and pilgrim market, selling candles and flowers to people who have come to Varanasi for spiritual reasons or to sightsee.
Among the most impoverished families, boys as well as girls are removed from school to boost the family income. In general, girls are favoured for domestic work, begging and child labour, and they are taken out of education first when times get tough.
What is SOS Children doing to help?
SOS Children began working in Varanasi in 1984. Since then, we have supported families across the region, with a particular focus on women and girls. Much of our family support work is targeted at widows, who are often vulnerable when they become the primary breadwinner of the family. We offer long-term support to families around the city from social centres, where we work to raise awareness of hygiene and children's rights, as well as guidance to help families improve their parenting.
In areas where food is scarce and medical treatment lacking, we work to ensure primary healthcare is in place for disadvantaged children and provide nutritional support to make sure babies grow up healthy. We provide families with vocational training and career guidance to help them find their niche in the employment market or even start their own businesses.
Caring for children who have no one
Many children lose their parents due to terrible adverse circumstances in Varanasi's slums. For these children, we provide a home and a loving family in our Children's Village. Here, they can grow up surrounded by other children and enjoy a high-quality education at our SOS school. Here, we have a fantastic learning centre with a library, music room and computer lab. The school is open to the most vulnerable children from the community, so children from the Village and beyond can learn and play together.
Life is hard for many children growing up in Varanasi. We help them overcome the worst hurdles a child can face face, offering healthcare, quality education, and long-term support, so that children from Varanasi can grow up with a chance of success.