Professor Wins Grant to Advance Research on Street Children of India
Release Date: 07-20-2009
As a viewer, Jonah Steinberg, assistant professor in anthropology, enjoyed the 2008 Academy Award-winning movie "Slumdog Millionaire." As a scholar, whose research focuses on the cultural and social aspects of India's street children, he took issue with the romanticization of the children's lives and the public's perception of their daily existence.
Steinberg's motivation isn't necessarily to debunk the movie's portrayal of street children in India, but rather to advance research in an area that has produced surprisingly little academic literature. A $233,654 grant from the National Science Foundation, pending final approval, will allow Steinberg, who has also conducted research in South Asia on the sociocultural aspects of globalization, to focus on street children who have run away from their rural village homes to New Delhi.
More specifically, Steinberg will study why leaving home is considered an accepted cultural practice in some villages in North India, but not other areas. He will also produce demographic surveys by district showing why runaways are more acute in some areas than others, as well as record conversations with street children to provide insight to non-profit and other organizations trying to reduce the number of runaways and better serve runaway youth.
"The movie portrayed some realistic aspects of street children's lives, but in many ways it was a distortion of reality, especially the way it made it seem easy for street children to escape their circumstances and go have fun in the city," said Steinberg, whose grant will allow him to spend almost a year of the three-year-grant in India and hire an assistant from India. "I also worry about children in India seeing it and thinking they can become a Bollywood star, but I'm not out to address any inaccuracies. My research focuses on the demographics of street children and why the circumstances around them make it 'normal' to run away. It also has an applied value that should help organizations there better deal with the issue of runaways."
Steinberg says the reasons children run away varies by region and individual case, but that abuse, poverty and a desire to escape rural life are among them. He also hopes to get a better feel for the actual number of runaways, which ranges in estimates from 30,000 to 100,000 a year. One of the reasons for the discrepancy is that many children who beg and appear poor to tourists of India aren't actually runaways, but might be begging on behalf of their families.
Steinberg's grant proposal stressed the importance of a broader dissemination of stories told by street children in their own words. By sharing these stories and accompanying research results with nonprofit organizations and policymaking institutions, Steinberg is hoping practical applications for activists, social workers and advocates working with runaways and street children will result.
In April of 2007, Steinberg arranged for more than 100 UVM students in his course "Street Children" to talk live, via digital video conferencing, with children from India who once lived on the streets of New Delhi: http://www.uvm.edu/~uvmpr/theview/article.php?id=2333. In turn, the children asked questions of UVM students, professors and two local middle school students.
"A better understanding of street children's own motives for having run away, and their experience of the process will allow for more sensitively-tailored and more contextually- appropriate policies and programs," writes Steinerg in his grant proposal. "More thorough knowledge of the trajectories that children follow and the dangers that they face in their journeys to the city may help concerned organizations provide them with better protection."