Children for Change

Life has not always been child's play in Ladakh, particularly in the districts of Leh and Kargil which are located near the country's border with Pakistan and China. It is the children, more than anyone else, who bear the brunt of the unpredictable economic conditions here. Pressed into work at an early age, they contribute 25 per cent to the household income. Although they constitute 40 per cent of the population, it comes as no surprise to learn that their rights are often overlooked.

It was to address this problem and empower them to bring about changes on issues that concern them that the Children's Committee for Village Development (CCVD) was formed in 1999 by the Save the Children (STC), UK. The Autonomous Hill Council government and the district administration in Ladakh have given CCVDs official recognition. And as a representative of all CCVDs, Nawaz Ali, the chief executive councilor of the Kargil CCVD, focused world attention on this concept at the UN Special Session for Children held in New York earlier this month.

The concept of forming a representative body in a given community comprising solely of children came about after the Save the Children, a non-governmental organization (NGO) working for the empowerment of children, felt that this was the only way to protect their rights. But could CCVDs play a meaningful role in tandem with the numerous village level committees already existing? More importantly, would adults listen to children? Yes, says the NGO, which recently conducted a study to evaluate the impact of its program.

In its report entitled 'Our Voices... Are you listening?' STC contends that children, when organized at the village level, can bring about change and influence adults. STC program director Martin Kelsey realized the power of children and CCVDs when he visited one of the villages in Leh. He discovered that the children here were particularly concerned about education. The school, however, did not function because the teacher was always late. The children decided to take the initiative, took a bus and went directly to the district education secretary and presented their case. The teacher was never late again.

Kelsey says that the adults in the village told him how they had tried to get this teacher reprimanded but had never succeeded. But the children did it in their first attempt and won the admiration of the adults.

It is not just the problem of teacher absenteeism that these children have redressed. They have also actively lobbied for school enrolment. The CCVD in village Tukla did it in a novel way. Being one of the first of these committees formed when the program was launched in 1999, the CCVD here had a higher non-school-going child participation than other CCVDs. Padma, the vice-president of this CCVD, herself has not attended school. But her CCVD has taken the initiative to talk to other children and their parents about the importance of education.

Padma has a simple argument to encourage education. She tells the parents and other children that because her parents did not allow her to attend school, she could not read or write and realized the problems this ignorance had caused in everyday life. So unless they wanted their children to face the same problems, they should send them to school. This argument worked.

Zonal director Deen Khan says that children have shown that given an opportunity to take responsibility, they analyze the situation and come out with workable solutions. According to M Sharif Bhat, one of the authors of the report, the CCVDs do a meticulous follow-up of the cases they take up. Once the children are in school, the CCVD members ensure that they do not dropout for lack of books. If a child does not have a book or school uniform, then the CCVD members try to persuade the parents to fulfill these needs. If the parents still refuse, they buy it for the child concerned. Interestingly, they have organized winter tuition for primary school students so that they can continue with their education during the long winter break. Although they haven't been able to persuade the teachers to give their vacation time for these tuitions yet, the older children run the courses. "I believe they are the real teachers," contends Bhat.

As a program coordinator who has worked closely with the CCVDs, he says this has changed his perspective. "They really helped me to develop the program and changed my perspective and made me re-look at children's issues. I learnt lots of lessons and developed new skills through this
interaction with the CCVDs," he says. It was not just the program officials who learnt a lesson or two. The Indian army too discovered what organized children could do.

Village Pandrass was one of the most vulnerable shelling areas during the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan. During shelling, the army took over the school building and some of the walls were destroyed. After the shelling ended, the Pandrass CCVD children motivated the army personnel to come and help them in the reconstruction of their school.

Today there are 77 CCVDs in the Ladakh region � 38 in the Leh district and 39 in Kargil. Their size ranges between 7 and 15 members depending on the size of the village community. However, here, size does not matter. That CCVDs have brought about change in attitudes irrespective of their size is best illustrated by the fact that in most villages where girls never sat and discussed issues with village boys, there are now several female CCVD presidents and executive committee members. This, more than anything else, is perhaps the most important reason to "listen to their voices".


More by :  Swapna Majumdar

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