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Developing Contextualized Life Skills Interventions in Conflict-Affected Areas: Lessons from Jammu and Kashmir, India

By Samriddhi Vij and Yashila Singh

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Conflict-affected areas are often marked by great uncertainty. In India, the Jammu and Kashmir region is one such area which has been impacted by conflict for decades. The violence in the region affects children’s mental health in myriad ways. In such a context, children’s building of life skills becomes increasingly important to help them navigate the multiple challenges they face every day. Life skills refer to a large group of psychosocial and interpersonal skills that promote psychosocial well-being leading to healthy and productive lives.

The unique conditions of these areas, coupled with the ongoing pandemic, necessitate contextualized solutions that meet children’s needs and are feasible. While the need for contextual relevance is well established, even for approaches towards life skills, challenges often lie in executing such approaches. The synergy between content creation and implementation design is key in ensuring that the intervention is responsive to the local situation. Recognizing these interdependencies, we outline three guiding principles that we learned through developing a life skills intervention in Jammu and Kashmir, India.

Understanding context

Jammu and Kashmir have experienced conflict for decades. Some districts often witness prolonged school closures due to political instability or extreme weather conditions, thereby affecting children’s learning. Frequent Internet and mobility restrictions due to political unrest also limit learning opportunities.

Pratham began work in the region in 2015 and currently works with children in Grades 1-8 to strengthen foundational literacy and numeracy. In 2019, we partnered with UNICEF India to develop a life skills intervention. Pratham’s life skills framework focuses on six main competencies: self-awareness, self-management, interpersonal skills, problem-solving, leadership, and technical skills

Our needs assessment in June 2019 helped understand the needs, aspirations, and experiences of different program and community stakeholders. It also brought forward how factors such as unemployment, drug abuse, religious, and demographic differences, coupled with the larger socio-political conflict, influence people’s daily lives and impact the mental health of children, parents, team members, and other stakeholders profoundly.

The three guiding principles

The learnings from the needs assessment and multiple discussions with community actors highlight the need to keep the context of the region at the core of our programming. The following three principles support attention to this context in designing a life skills intervention for the region:

1. Consistent and systematic inputs from the community

Needs assessment is approached as a continuous process and not a one-time activity. We have built continuous insights from the community into the intervention and content design through a systematic approach consisting of multiple field visits, feedback from implementation teams, and interactions with community actors. For example, children’s access to digital devices informs content delivery, and regular feedback calls with community actors help direct content creation.

Even pre-Covid-19, the intervention centered on the community’s needs given the frequent mobility and Internet disruptions. This helped foster strong relations and teaching-learning practices in the community which are now being leveraged to enable learning continuity during the pandemic. Volunteers who live in the same neighborhoods as the children are mobilized to help facilitate learning within community spaces or remotely. Such processes help build sustainability and community ownership.

2. Collaborative content creation by leveraging inputs from multiple partners

The UNICEF team, Pratham's life skills and academic (English, Math, Hindi, and Urdu) content teams, and the implementation team participated in multiple content creation workshops. These workshops helped understand gender responsive and conflict-sensitive approaches to direct content creation. Additionally, the involvement of the different teams helped foster a deeper understanding of the approach towards life skills and its impact. Through the implementation team’s insights on regional characteristics and children’s interests, activities focusing on appropriate life skills were developed. The activities were designed such that community volunteers can easily implement them, particularly during periods of limited mobility.

Each of these teams continue to contribute their own set of skills during review discussions, thereby combining two key aspects of designing curriculum and implementation: technical know-how and contextual understanding.

3. Blending life skills in content, teacher behaviors, and methods

The intervention incorporates life skills as an overall ‘lens’ or ‘approach’ and not just a separate ‘module’. Therefore, along with creation of stand-alone life skills sessions, the process of collaborative content creation helps integrate life skills within academic content through stories and activities. For example, an English language story for Grade 6-8 learners depicts two goats reaching the centre of a narrow bridge and then arguing to cross it first. The message encourages the development of creative thinking and cooperation through a reflection question on what will happen next. The content is also reviewed to encourage usage of context-relevant as well as gender-transformative imagery and examples.

Additionally, the periodic training for the implementation team, conducted via participatory training methodologies, helps build their understanding of life skills and develop effective teacher behaviours. This supports creation of an enabling environment for improving life skills among children.

While the region faces many challenges that hinder learning, consistently responding to the evolving situation can help programs remain relevant and address any gaps. Building on this progress, we aim to work towards creating a conducive learning ecosystem which is both relevant to the local conditions and resilient to its dynamics.