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Life | Listen to the Kids

One in five of the world’s population is aged between 12 and 18. In developing countries, where the percentage is much higher, children and young people often carry a huge burden of responsibility at work and in the home. Yet despite this, rarely are their voices and views taken into account. Life reports on a Unicef initiative to involve children in decisions that affect, not only their own futures – but those of their families and communities. Life travels from post-conflict Sri Lanka to the back streets of New Delhi to talk to children involved in the Children’s Council of street children, in adolescent education in Bangladesh, and in fighting discrimination against HIV/AIDS sufferers in Nepal.

Life travels from post-conflict Sri Lanka to the back-streets of New Delhi to talk to children involved in the street children’s council, in adolescent education in Bangladesh, and in fighting discrimination against HIV/AIDS sufferers in Nepal.

kids1The first child we meet is Deepak, aged 14, in Delhi. He’s one of 50,000 street children in a city of 10 million. Many sleep rough wherever they can. Their working day starts at 5.30am. Most survive by recycling rubbish, seven days a week. Deepak helps produce a newspaper: ‘Whatever our dreams we will print them and we’ll show the world. I know we are poor but we’ve also got rights and those rights should be given to us. That’s why our Child’s Paper is working – we, the children have made it.’

Deepak and his friends boys regularly use a night shelter run by Butterflies, near the Red Fort. The organisation also provides informal education, counselling, media and theatre training, and encourages them to speak out about their ideas and their opinions.

Butterflies also runs an informal school for children who live near the railway tracks. And the children also have a monthly council meeting to discuss their problems and ideas. Deepak explains: ‘If a child has a problem he tells all the other children about it. He’s helped by all the children and the facilitators to find a solution. The meetings are conducted by the kids and it’s for the kids.’

Earning enough every day is essential for these children to survive, and keeping their hard won cash is another problem for Deepak and the boys. But once again these street children have come up with their own solution – a Children’s Bank.

‘The money we earn if we don’t spend it and we keep it in our pockets – bad men and big boys catch us and rob us. Say tomorrow if we get sick, or we need anything like clothes and the money’s gone, then we have to earn it again. That’s why we’ve opened up this bank.’

The boys are now taking their idea of the Children’s Bank to other states in India. Next Life travels to the Terai Plains of Nepal to meet 17-year-old Sita, who is a SOVAA – a Social Volunteer against Aids. ‘I felt that people, especially women, needed to know more about HIV and AIDS, so I felt I could contribute. India is close by and drugs are the main problem – using different types of drugs and sharing the same needles. If one person gets infected others may become infected.’

kids2Being a SOVAA means breaking rules. It means talking about sex, talking about HIV and AIDS, about why young people are vulnerable to infection. Sita’s parents objected at first, but then her mother realised that she was doing good. Shanti, from a nearby village, explains how Sita helped her: ‘My husband died and although I was guarding my reputation, I was raped and they took away my honour and then I was compelled to go away with him and I went to a foreign country. After I came back home, I found I had HIV. But I didn’t know what it was, what the word means. Sita knows the facts – she helped me understand.’

There was plenty of prejudice to overcome, especially from the young men: ‘In the past if we girls talked about HIV and AIDS with the boys, even though we used to talk to them as friends they used to say ‘Oh my, aren’t you ashamed talking like that? You’re advertising condoms so you must have HIV.”

kids3Now as SOVAAs, Sita and her friends are starting to win the right to be heard. They are becoming the agents of change in their rural communities, and people are listening. Seventeen-year-old Ehalingham lives in Sivanteevu, a tiny Tamil village almost surrounded by water on the east coast of Sri Lanka. He’s one of 85 children determined to breathe life into their war-torn village. Many of the children living here have lost relatives. Education has been one of the major casualties in the conflict. In Sivanteevu, many children are now working in the only industry left, instead of attending school.

With the help of the Eastern Self-reliance Community Organisation (ESCO), Ehalingham and his friends set up a club, with the aim of expanding the tiny school to accommodate older students. They lobbied local authorities and rallied parents. Three years on, over 400 extra students are benefiting from the new school-room. The club building is a vital focal point for the children of Sivanteevu. But Tharshini, a founding member of the project when she was just 15, says at first they weren’t taken seriously.

‘In the beginning there wasn’t much co-operation from the parents. The other thing was that people who watched us thought it was wrong that boys and girls played together. They didn’t believe that children could do this type of job. Now they have confidence in us.’

Finally, in rural Bangladesh, we meet Shati. Shati’s 16 and lives in Akua, near Tangail. Unlike many young teenage girls, Shati’s continuing her education, and she’s earning money. As well as taking pictures, Shati campaigns for other girls to follow in her footsteps and not get married off at 14 or 15. She argues with Farida, a woman who wants to marry off her daughter: ‘Oh no, you know you told me you liked the fact that I go to school and I take pictures with my camera. Don’t you want your Muni to do the same as me. Why do you say things like that? Is she 18 yet? Isn’t she 14? Don’t you know that if you get married at a young age, you face many problems?’

And her mother now supports her, because the family values the money that Shati earns through her photography.

And even the principal of the local religious school now supports her. ‘We have to tell the people of the village that they shouldn’t marry their sons and daughters off at a very early age. They can earn money if you allow them to become educated and this is beneficial in many different ways and it’ll build up the country. These girls can earn a lot of money.’

‘I wanted to study science but they wanted to send me to the religious school. I wanted to do something but they said ‘You’re a girl you can’t do anything’ And they didn’t value my opinions.’

Joining the Adolescent Girls Programme at the Centre for Mass Education and Science changed Shati’s life. Encouraged to value herself and her abilities, she decided to learn photography.

She faced opposition from her parents and the conservative community. Her mother says: ‘In this community it is really difficult for girls to study, it is our society’s rules. When I sent Shati to school, some boys tried to stop us. They took the books and they threw stones. When the village elders met, even they tried to stop her.’

As well as taking pictures, Shati campaigns for other girls to follow in her footsteps and not get married off at 14 or 15. She argues with Farida, a woman who wants to marry off her daughter: ‘Oh no, you know you told me you liked the fact that I go to school and I take pictures with my camera. Don’t you want your Muni to do the same as me. Why do you say things like that? Is she 18 yet? Isn’t she 14? Don’t you know that if you get married at a young age, you face many problems?’

And her mother now supports her, because the family values the money that Shati earns through her photography.

And even the principal of the local religious school now supports her. ‘We have to tell the people of the village that they shouldn’t marry their sons and daughters off at a very early age. They can earn money if you allow them to become educated and this is beneficial in many different ways and it’ll build up the country. These girls can earn a lot of money.’

RELATED LINKS:

A good starting point is Unicef’s ‘At a Glance’ pages of information and statistics on Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. See also Unicef’s pages on Adolescence, and their paper on The Participation Rights of Adolescents: A Strategic Approach.

Read a description of the Butterflies project in Delhi and the Times of India page on the project.

Click here for Save the Children’s page of Key Issues on HIV/AIDS prevention in Nepal, and here for Save the Children UK’s AIDS programme there.

Shati benefited from the programmes of the Centre for Mass Education in Science, Dhaka, and especially the CMESAdolescent Girls Programme.

For news and background on the Sri Lanka peace process, visit the comprehensive Peace Process of Sri Lanka website, and the BBC analysis of the crisis.

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