Up close and personal

Children for Children

Two sisters from a remote village in Odisha’s Kandhamal district, Sharmilata and Jyamuna come from the Kandha Primitive Tribal Group (PTG) of Odisha. Sharmilata is a 19-year-old girl who aspires to be the best football player in the country. She is the first child in her village to have completed class 12. Both the sisters battled various forms of discriminatory practices including her elder sister Jyamuna almost getting married at the age of 15. The sister’s battle from escaping an early marriage to completing school and kicking football is no less of a marvel.

“The day my parents reaffirmed me to get married, I knew I had to fight my battle. My mother had studied only till class 2; I was the only female who had studied till class 10 in the family,” says Jyamuna. Through a workshop on Life Skills Training and Reproductive & Sexual Health, she became aware of all the ill effects of marriage at her age and convinced her parents that she wasn’t ready to get married after a hustle of three years.

Initially talking to boys was a rare thing for her. But these trainings allowed her to be open to talk to others, seek solutions to all problems by working as a team. But playing football with boys still remained a distant dream. So when she watched some boys in her village play football, she got the idea of forming a girls’ football team in her village. Since its formation in 2019, this girl’s football team has played six matches at block level. Looking at her sister succeed in all of her hustle, Sharmilata also wished to play football, but she also had to follow the same course of hustle. “I was often told that I would never find a good husband if I played football. They reduced my self-worth to how good a husband I can get. But I didn’t stop playing. Save the Children team arrived just in time. As a part of their program, we were allowed to express our dreams and desires. And it worked liked magic. Save the Children helped us get all the equipment. There was no looking back from there,” she said.

However, the pandemic disrupted all progress made so far. Sharmilata not only got disconnected from her education but she also couldn't play football. She didn’t have access to technology or internet and she spent most of her time doing the house chores. This completely cut her off from football and it felt like a punishment.. Nonetheless, after the second wave, the sisters slowly started practicing once a week, gradually increasing the number of days and now they practice every single day!

The post pandemic world presents a completely different ecosystem for development organisations to work in. Save the Children seeks to focus on program designs in the coming years that strengthen children’s capacity to participate and have a voice. Marking a significant beginning towards this, was the launch of the WINGS report 2022 which urges the need to empower girls and women to have a life of their own choice and dream. It also stresses on creating opportunities through child and youth-led forums on advocating against child marriage.

Save the Children since inception have been working through various child led platforms like life skill education, Bal panchayats and Bal Sansads, children’s groups etc to amplify children’s voices. Through repeated trainings and exposure the children are being oriented on their rights and entitlements and also democratic ways to challenge the status quos. We also work with community platforms, institutions, duty bearers, schools and governments to ensure that children’s needs, desires and requirements are acknowledged and acted upon.

Part of the reason why children’s opinions are neglected is due to the social hierarchy that we are a part of. Children are often seen to be having underdeveloped minds and as one of those who don’t get to have a say in how things impact them. This is an active concern with regards to the upcoming new ideas and the fresh perspectives that children have. We strive to support and enable children to see the fault-lines, derive solutions and implement them.

In another example, Sanya, a fourteen-year-old from Kashmir is setting new boundaries even where adults failed to succeed. When children in the Kashmiri neighborhood were terrified of going to the government school due to the opium cultivation outside the school campus, Sanya herself took responsibility for righting the wrong and to stand up against children’s rights being violated.

When the land outside of Sanya’s school in Srinagar was being used to grow opium, leaving children prone to problems of drug trafficking and addiction, Sanya reached out to the socio-cultural leaders in her area to raise awareness regarding the ills of drugs and substance abuse.

“We got together and burnt down the entire opium crop and cleared the ground in front of our school. We also conducted sensitisation sessions at the community level and door to door home visits to emphasize the negative impact of drugs on society and families,” said Sanya. That land, today, is being used as a playground for children.

Our children championing their causes across India are the building blocks to a nation where ‘Agency of Children’, soon becomes a reality. The idea talks about children’s capacity to act—for themselves, for their peers and other children, for community at large. It talks about how children’s voices need to be heard, acknowledged and factored to create a space where society doesn’t work for them, but with them - to enable a trajectory from a sense of agency, exercising agency to creating a conducive environment for children and their agencies.

According to Sanya, she owes a lot to Save the Children for getting the courage to stand up against drugs. “During our sessions with them, I learned about child rights. While growing up, I was not aware that I have the right to speak and raise concerns about myself and other children. It is only because of the orientation and through the Children’s Group that I got the courage to speak up for our rights and dared to fight against violations,” she said. She also contributed in sensitizing about what she understood and learnt in the Children’s Group meetings. “Along with some of my friends, I went to the homes of children who have dropped out of school and urged their parents to enroll them back to school. We went door to door to assess the number of child labour cases in the area. During the pandemic, we also raised awareness on COVID safety protocols and behavior,” she said.

The announcement of ‘TRAC - The Rights and Agency of Children in India’, our flagship publication is a step towards creating evidences on issues which impact children, their future through their own voices- a migration from the usual adult perspective for development of children.

As pointed out by Sudarshan, Chief Executive Officer, Save the Children, “TRAC is envisaged as not merely another report. It seeks to represent a much larger thought and spirit, unifying voices of all organisations working for and with Children while ensuring that the primary stakeholders – the Children form the pivot around which these voices are integrated.”

As we continue to engage with children on the fringes to let them take their life decisions and bring in societal changes around them, we are also constantly striving to engage with children and youth from privileged section stand for children on the other side. Our engagements with colleges, schools through the young campaigners platform is to help the youth to take the lead and leap ahead with solutions to social challenges. The Young Campaigners Programis a platform to harness the individual and collective potential of the youth and create a safe space to ideate, speak up, act and build a community of support.

To pilot the program, Save the Children joined hands with MASH Project Foundation to facilitate college activations and discussions across 10 colleges in 3 cities – Delhi/NCR, Mumbai and Bengaluru with an aim to reach out to 600+ young people on climate change and its bearings on children.

The program kicked off with eight weeks of virtual skilling-building sessions and experiential volunteering engagements.

We are also creating a cadre of champions on gender and by the end of these pilots, we aim to build a caucus of dedicated young change-makers from across the country working collaboratively to steer change around them and lead by example by transforming children for children into a reality.