Cities that work for babies, toddlers, and caregivers work for everyone: BvLF India’s Rushda Majeed

As the India representative for the Bernard van Leer Foundation, Rushda Majeed spearheads the organisation’s initiatives to improve young children’s health, nutrition, and education in Indian cities.

4th Jan 2020
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As the India representative of Bernard van Leer Foundation, Rushda Majeed oversees its responsibility towards inspiring and informing large-scale action to improve the health and well-being of babies, toddlers, and the people who care for them.


Present in India since 1992, the Foundation has offered grants to non-governmental organisations focused mainly on childcare and preschool education. While its work is concentrated majorly in the cities of Bhubaneshwar, Pune, and Udaipur, in 2016, the Odisha capital became a pioneering city for this initiative.


In 2018, BvLF formalised Urban95 partnerships with two new cities, Pune and Udaipur. An MOU was signed between Pune and the Bernard van Leer Foundation in 2018 and the initiative was launched the same year.


In 2019, a MOU was signed between Udaipur and the Bernard van Leer Foundation in 2018 and the initiative was launched in 2019.


Rushda Majeed


When India’s Smart Cities Mission announced its ranking of applicants for support in 2016, Bhubaneswar – the capital of the state of Odisha – topped the list. BvLF has been working with city authorities and India’s National Institute of Urban Affairs to make sure that it becomes not only a smart city, but India’s first child-friendly smart city. In 2019, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare signed an MoU with the National Health Systems Resource Centre on behalf of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.


In an interview with HerStory, Rushda Majeed, India Representative, Bernard van Leer Foundation, talks about the organisation’s long-term goals for India, its Urban95 initiative, and thoughts on urban planning for child-friendly cities.

HerStory: What led to you to working in the social sector?

Rushda Majeed: After graduating from Columbia University in 2007, I worked at a New York-based non-profit that supported young leaders before moving to Princeton University to do research on government innovation and reforms. I worked at the Innovations for Successful Societies, a centre at the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and tracked interesting case studies of reforms by government, often in difficult circumstances.


Some of my most interesting research included how the municipality got back on its feet in Palermo, Italy, during and after the time of the Mafia; how a mayor in a small Indonesian city, Surakarta, transformed the city, and later went on to become Indonesia’s current two-term president. There were, of course, many others.


In 2015, I joined a small Bloomberg Philanthropies team that would be based in New Delhi to support India’s Smart Cities Mission via a challenge or competition between the 100 participating cities. It was a fabulous experience and set me up for the work I am currently doing with BvLF.

HS: What prompted you to join BvLF?

RM: BvLF came along at an opportune time. It had just launched an initiative called Urban95. Urban95 is best described by the question: if you could experience the city from 95 cm - the height of a three-year-old - what would you change? Urban95 seeks to answer this question by helping city decision-makers, planners, urban designers, and other urbanists understand how their work can influence child development.


For me, it was an opportunity to be part of a niche and unique initiative for children between the ages of zero and five years and their caregivers - often parents, grandparents, and elder siblings in the Indian context - while continuing to work with government and on issues of urban governance.


I believe Urban95 may be one of the very few such initiatives around the world that is looking at the relationship between the built environment and babies, toddlers, and those that look after them. Ultimately, cities that work for babies, toddlers, and caregivers work for everyone.


HS: Can you tell us about the organisation and what it does?

RM: BvLF is an independent foundation based in the Hague, the Netherlands, and working worldwide to inspire and inform large scale action to improve the health and well-being of babies, toddlers, and the people who care for them. It provides financial support and expertise to partners in government, civil society, and business to help test and scale effective services for young children and families.


For more than 50 years now, the Foundation has worked to develop and share knowledge about how to improve young children’s health, nutrition, and education.


HS: What does the Foundation do in India?

RM: In India, as elsewhere, we work through two lenses: Parents+ and Urban95. The work on Parents+ combines parent coaching in early child development with at least one service designed to meet families’ basic needs – whether aimed at adults (reproductive health, savings groups, literacy, mental health, job training) or children (healthcare, nutrition, childcare, preschool). We focus on parents and caregivers because the way they nurture and support children in their early years is among the most decisive factors in healthy child development.


Our partners include the municipalities of Pune, Bhubaneswar, and Udaipur, as well as organisations such as the National Institute of Urban Affairs.


rushda majeed

HS: What is urban planning for child-friendly cities?

RM: The presence of children and families is often a measure of a city’s vibrancy and dynamism. Urban families around the world, especially those living in poverty or in informal settlements, benefit in transformational ways from more - and more accessible - services, transport, and safe, clean, green spaces for small children to play and families to gather.


But family-centred urban planning and design is not only about building more playgrounds. Families are disproportionately challenged by poor public transport, as well as food, healthcare and childcare ‘deserts’. Thoughtful urban planning and design can play a major role in addressing such challenges and in giving children a good start in life, by offering:


  • Walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods that cater for the basics a young family needs within 15 minutes on foot
  • Lively, green public spaces close to home that offer amenities for caregivers while allowing small children to explore safely
  • Safe transport routes and transit systems that make it easy, affordable and enjoyable for families with young children to travel where they need to go
  • Healthy environments with safe levels of air quality and low noise pollution
  • Vibrant community life that supports family well-being
  • Additionally, family-friendly urban planning and design can increase a city’s climate resilience, carry enormous economic and other benefits, and offer a platform for investment that brings everyone together. 


HS: Tell us more about the Foundation’s Early childhood development initiative and parenting workshops.

RM: Through Parents+, we support the Odisha State government’s Ministry of Women and Child Development to scale a mother tongue-based early learning programme, which has trained over 8,000 anganwadi workers and supervisors engaged in working with young children across the State. In Udaipur, the municipality is working with the technical partner ICELI-South Asia to strengthen capacity in 100 anganwadis across the city through learning workshops.


HS: What are your future plans?

RM: India is undergoing rapid urbanisation. About 128.5 million children (27.2 percent) reside in cities, of which 36.6 million are in the zero-five-year age group.


We look forward to more cities in India investing in this critical work, with us without our support, and becoming part of a movement to develop healthy, prosperous, and vibrant societies for young children and their families.


So, there is a lot to be done, room to grow and learn, innovate, and scale. I am keen to continue to be a part of this journey; be motivated and excited about the work I do every day.


(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)


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