In villages across the country, groups of children, guided by local NGOs, are acting as agents of change, prodding panchayats, collectors and officials to fill teacher vacancies, fix bus schedules, even prevent child marriages. Riddhi Doshi reports.mumbai Updated: Aug 11, 2013 02:58 IST
Until last year, 36 children aged three to six were crammed in a 500-sq-ft room all day, trying to learn their nursery rhymes, exercise and rest in a space that served as gram panchayat office, anganwadi classroom and anganwadi kitchen in remote Garadgaon village in Maharashtra.
Then, the Delhi-based Indian arm of global NGO Save the Children, which operates in 11 states across the country, decided to expand its Children’s Group programme to this village in Akola district, through a local NGO.
It is a model that Save the Children follows across India, tying up with local welfare groups to form groups of children aged 12 to 14 and encourage them to raise and demand redressal for issues relating to local infrastructure and administration.
In each village, a Child Protection Committee (CPC) comprising a handful of local teachers, police officers and activists helps guide and support the young advocates for change.
When the Garadgaon village Children’s Group met for the first time in November, members of the CPC asked what they felt was the most pressing need in the village.
The children said their younger siblings could not learn or even rest well in the overcrowded, shared space of the anganwadi (the term for a government-run child- and mother-care centre), and asked if they were entitled to a separate space.
The CPC said that they were, and advised the children to raise their demand at the next panchayat meeting, which they did. All 16 members of the group also co-wrote and co-signed a letter asking for a dedicated space for the anganwadi.
The panchayat approved the request, allotted a space and applied through the collector for funds. Six months later, Rs 6 lakh arrived from the Centre for the construction — enough for the panchayat to build a 750-sq-ft space for the anganwadi and a 300-sq-ft adjoining space for the anganwadi kitchen, where the afternoon meal is cooked for the mothers and children.
“The new space that the panchayat has built is only for studying, playing and resting,” says Roshni Lage, 12, a member of the Children’s Group. “Now, the children are no longer disturbed by the sound of gram panchayat meetings or kitchen work.”
Anganwadi worker Nirmala Mankor says she too is thankful to the children’s group because the dedicated space for a kitchen means that they can keep it clean much more easily, without people coming and going all day.
“Often, elders fail to identify with children’s problems,” says Pramila Shinde, representative of local NGO Samajik Arthik Vikas Sanstha. “This programme helps make children aware of their rights to education, to playtime, to a clean and a safe environment, and then teaches them how to demand what they are due.”
Across the country, similar initiatives are encouraging children to demand their due, tackling issues such as infanticide, child marriage, trafficking of children and child labour.
Save the Children alone operates its programme in 11 states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir and West Bengal. And Plan India, a Delhi-based child rights NGO that runs a similar programme, has set up Bal Panchayats in 11 states, including Bihar, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh.
Elsewhere, local NGOs such as Bangalore-based Children’s Right Trust are also working on the same model.
In each group, local NGOs hand-pick children based on their communication skills, ability to influence peers and aptitude for community service and then conduct regular sessions to teach them about the laws and schemes relating to the issues that the children identify.
The activists also guide the children on how to push their demands and spread awareness to other children so that the group becomes a platform where any child from the village can discuss a problem.
In addition to attending panchayat meetings and writing letters to the relevant authorities, the children’s groups also organise rallies, hold discussions with governing bodies and file petitions, using government schemes and the Right to Information Act to further their cause in tackling their chosen issue.
In Garadgaon, after tasting victory with their new anganwadi, the Children’s Group has identified a number of new issues at their fortnightly meetings — including the need for a science laboratory in the village primary school (the lab was inaugurated last month) and the need to convince parents not to pull their children out of school.
With the dropouts, for instance, the children persuaded the panchayat to speak to the parents or wards and have the children returned to class.
“My uncle had convinced me to leave school and work on our farm, but my friends in Children’s Group pestered me to get back to class and I am glad I listened to their advice,” says Gautam Vankhede, 14, a Class 8 student. “After the panchayat spoke to my uncle, he sends me to school every day and I am determined to become an engineer.”
The science laboratory, meanwhile, was built at a cost of Rs 25,000, with funds collected from the government and the school budget. “The Children’s Group and the Child Protection Committee in my village are very active and that is beginning to benefit the entire village,” says village sarpanch Pradeep Gatmare. “They are doing a fine job of empowering themselves and other children.”