“Almost half of the girls in India are married before they're even 18 years old,” says Suparna Gupta MC/MPA 2013, founder and director of the Indian nonprofit Aangan, which is dedicated to protecting vulnerable children. “I think we have the highest number of child laborers in India — 5.8 million child laborers, with 2.4 million adolescents in hazardous work. There is also an alarming figure of one child going missing every eight minutes — a statistic that is deeply linked to child trafficking.”
Since 2002, Gupta has led Aangan in its mission to make India a safer place for children and adolescents. From premature marriage, early motherhood, sexual abuse, or trafficking, the children of India suffer exceedingly tumultuous and dangerous childhoods. For the past decade and a half, Gupta has worked to build child protection systems that are all too often nonexistent in areas of India, especially where most marginalized groups live. She came to Harvard Kennedy School in 2012 as a Ford Foundation Mason Fellow supported by the Ash Center and took classes on social change and leadership. Since then, her work has spread to 80 hotspots of child harm in six states.
As a native of Mumbai and a precocious volunteer, Gupta was exposed early on to the suffering that exists in some parts of India. She herself was fortunate enough to attend a prestigious private school in Mumbai, but this school helped her discover her lifelong passion for volunteer work. “Of course I was just a regular teenager,” she said. “But it did lead me to my first volunteer experience at a church-based afterschool program — a volunteer program with street children. That was interesting for me because in a way, it stayed with me for so many years.”
After graduating from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, Gupta held a job in advertising. However, around age 30, she realized that she did not wish this to be her life’s work. Drawing on her experience volunteering with street children, she founded Aangan. Originally, the organization focused heavily on state-run rescue and shelter homes. “We would meet the child after she had been through multiple levels of harm. Our focus was on the conditions, care, and response to these traumatized children,” said Gupta. After attending HKS, she realized the need to shift Aangan’s approach. Her work with Aangan became much more preventative, focusing on a unique community-based model that went straight to hotspots of child harm to preclude the harm being done to children in the first place. Aangan continues to implement a post-harm program. “We work with government functionaries to strengthen work with child victims, emphasizing the recovery, return, and reintegration processes in order to prevent recurrence of harm. We look at all the officials within that journey. We more or less work like trainers and facilitators to strengthen existing government systems.”
Gupta employs what she calls “activations” in her work to protect children. “It’s really about mobilizing communities, helping them identify existing resources and alerting government officials so that formal and informal systems work in coordination with each other,” said Gupta. She further explained, “For instance, this year we'll be training a cohort of a thousand mothers to be child protection workers. In turn, they run girls' safety networks. This year, they'll be running safety networks for 30,000 girls and 10,000 boys across all our communities, and we'll be activating 500 local officials. They're appointed and maybe available, but they're inaccessible. Through this work, we’ve impacted over 100,000 children over the last two years.”
Gupta is not nervous about the political implications that her work might have. She emphasizes the paramount importance of allying with the government. “There's no use in us working independent of local officials,” she said. “Local officials are slowly starting to realize that they need information from the community to act in a timely way. That's the kind of dialogue that our community program builds.” Acknowledging the necessity of this partnership, Gupta designs her child protection programs with the state in mind, ensuring that the programs could readily be adopted by the government.
At HKS, Gupta took a class titled Sparking Social Change offered by Academic Dean Archon Fung and Professor Mark Moore, both affiliated with the Ash Center, which taught her the importance of the intersections between sectors. In this spirit, and in an effort to expand the services of Aangan, Gupta’s team have combined social science and technology by working with a partner to develop an app that aims to collect data on family vulnerability in hotspots where Aangan works. Aangan’s cohort of community volunteers will be trained in the use of this app in order to spread real-time data to be viewed and acted upon by local governments.
Gupta speaks confidently about the future of Aangan. “We're hoping to shift from being those who are doing and demonstrating in the next two years to having the government adopt our model. We do see ourselves as moving into the role of trainers, creating innovative tools for all types of community child protection volunteers, workers, and functionaries.”