Children are the custodians of the future, and empowering them with information that helps them become changemakers can go a long way to improving society. A UNICEF initiative is now doing just that in Maharashtra’s rural districts.
Kalyani Vankar, 16, is outspoken, proactive, and persistent. The Class X student of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Vidyalaya in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, 200 km. from Nagpur, simply cannot be a silent bystander to violence, suffering, and injustice, especially if women and children are involved. She animatedly recalls how she came across a disturbed young girl in her Chiroli village and took it upon herself to uncover the problem she was facing. “She was in my school, and I noticed that she was very quiet and depressed. I had to really cajole her before she told me that she had been raped and was pregnant. She was so traumatised that she had become suicidal,” she says. Vankar took time out to counsel her and asked her to share her agony with her parents.
When she finally gathered the courage to speak to the elders, Vankar was right by her side to give her much-needed moral support. The girl’s parents were furious, and immediately decided to confront the college boy who had raped their daughter. As was expected, he flatly denied the crime. So Vankar suggested they speak to the local Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) to figure out their future course of action.
After patiently hearing about her situation, the ASHA worker took the matter to a women’s group that filed a formal police complaint. Once the police was involved, things came out into the open and the villagers told the underage survivor to terminate her pregnancy. “But she did not want to give in to any kind of outside pressure, and my friends and I felt we should support her. Even our anganwadi worker told her not to care about what society thought. Initially she would feel bad when others derided her for choosing to be an unwed mother. But later on, she started retorting to the insensitive taunts. She’s fine now,” reports Vankar with a bright smile.
She is really glad that she was able to motivate someone to stand up for herself instead of giving in to the pain, shame, and suicidal thoughts.
Like Vankar, several teens in the area – boys and girls – are sensitive, informed, and empowered to look out for themselves and their own. Ever since they have participated in the Adolescent Life Skills Education programme initiated by UNICEF, high on the agenda of these gutsy school-goers are a wide range of concerns—from sanitation and health to education, domestic violence, and child marriage. The programme, run in collaboration with Chandrapur Zilla Parishad and Yashvant Rao Chauhan Academy for Development Administration (YASHADA), Pune, has trained students as peer educators so that they, in turn, can impart knowledge about important issues to their classmates through creative methods.
Vankar’s class fellow, Vishal Sadamwar, 16, is committed to addressing health challenges. “I was in Class VIII when the Life Skills programme started. I learnt many new things during our sessions, particularly about addictions and how they affect one’s health and family life. At the time, many of my friends’ parents used to chew gutka and kharra or consume alcohol regularly. So we got together to tell them about the ill effects of these addictive substances,” he elaborates.
Assertive and articulate as he may be these days, Sadamwar’s teachers have been witness to a gradual transformation in the youngster.
Testifying to this, his teacher Padamraj Lokhande says, “From 132 senior students, we picked four boys and four girls for this programme. When we had just begun to engage with the children, they were hesitant to speak up, and Vishal was no exception. He has gained tremendous confidence, and participates freely in group discussions. He has also played an instrumental role in motivating others.”
According to Lokhande, one of the main reasons behind children being quiet and unmotivated in class is because the lessons are usually very boring. With time, for most of them, coming to school becomes nothing but a mere chore, and they can’t wait to get away.
Fortunately, the Life Skills programme has brought back creativity and excitement to the learning process.
The programme personnel routine conduct theme-based group activities such as games, street plays, song and dance, painting exhibitions, and poetry recitations on socially relevant topics to enhance understanding of otherwise complex subjects. The model has effectively sensitised students towards a host of problems that confront their community, including structural violence and gender issues such as discrimination.
Sadamwar admits that in the beginning, being proactive and communicative wasn’t easy for him. “I used to be so nervous about interacting with other students. But then we took to playing games and, in the process, got to know each other better. A few team-building exercises was all it took to open up. As a peer educator, I have been able to tell them about inter-personal relationships, impart sex education, HIV awareness, and gender issues,” he shares.
Indeed, Sadamwar is a true rights champion for female students. When he got to know that a brother was beating one of them just because the boy had anger issues, he immediately intervened. The girl had shared her woes during a session, and Sadamwar and his friends lost no time in going to counsel her family. “Her brother admitted to beating her up often in a fit of rage. He was unable to control his anger, and directed it unfairly at his sister. Their parents had never tried to stop him. We told him about ways to control rage like counting to 10 before doing anything,” he narrates.
Helping people deal with tobacco and alcohol dependency is another one of his crusades. “Such behaviours are harmful to our health. In these cases, counselling is not enough, as some people are unable to let go. It takes a lot of patience and time for positive results,” he says astutely. Sadamwar wants to be either a teacher or a railway officer.
He has successfully motivated several students to kick their addictions.
In nearby Saoli block’s Zilla Parishad High School in Patri village, Payal Mishra, 16, is doing her bit to do good. Her face beams as she recalls the effect of the Life Skills programme on her and her fellow students. “There was an autistic child in our class. He never spoke. No one had ever heard his voice,” she says. However, as her group got closer, one day the boy came up to ask why Mishra’s classmates always surrounded her.
“He had never spoken to anyone before that day. Later on, he became so comfortable that he got friendly with a boy from another school too! Once, when it was his turn to speak on the microphone, he did not hesitate, and stunned everyone. Even his mother was ecstatic,” she says jubilantly. She enthusiastically recalls the time she and a friend decided to approach boys to play cricket in school. “We told them we’d like to play, and they were okay with it. They even taught us spin bowling!” she giggles.
Mishra can’t talk enough about the significance of the Life Skills programme in her life. “It wasn’t all song and dance. We learnt so much about our bodies and our rights. We got the opportunity to mix with children we had never met before, and became close friends,” she signs off.
Find out how YASHADA’s Centre for Human Development (CHD) is helping empower other children such as these, on their website.