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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 38 New Delhi September 8, 2018

Towards a Child-friendly World

Sunday 9 September 2018

by Paroma Bhattacharya

A child-friendly world is no utopian fable and well within our reach. For putting things into perspective let us first understand what a child-friendly world is. Simply put, it is a world where all children are free, safe, healthy and educated and are able to enjoy their universal and fundamental rights without any exception whatsoever. It is a world where children are in an enabling environment that helps them realise their dreams and unleash their fullest potential.

It is easy to visualise. But, is the world really child-friendly? In a day and age where we have conquered Mars and are able to take close-ups of Pluto, a shocking reality that stares us in the face is that there are still 152 million child labourers, of whom 73 million are trapped in slavery, trafficking, sexual exploitation, armed conflict and are subjected to unabated violence. These numbers were far higher at the turn of this century when the Millennium Development Goals were adopted. Clearly a lot of work has been done towards reinstating childhoods betwen 2000 and 2015 when sustainable development goals were universally acclaimed by the international fraternity. While the low hanging fruits have been picked, concerted efforts by governments, international organisations, civil society, faith-based organisations, media and the private sector are the need of the hour hereafter to emancipate the hard-to-reach children trapped in hell-holes, thereby ushering in a child-friendly world.

It is imperative for governments to step up their individual and collective efforts to eliminate modern slavery, trafficking and child labour. A journey of 1000 miles begins with a simple step. Let me give the example of the Bal Mitra Gram/Child Friendly Village which is the brainchild of Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi. This unique model is being implemented in hundreds of villages in the country. The concept adopts an innovative methodology that looks holistically at a community and children within that community.

The villages encourage democratic principles, and children’s views are accorded the utmost respect in the village decision-making process. A children’s parliament is constituted so that all children have a say in matters that concern them. The children’s parliament works in close collaboration with the village panchayat (the constitutional body) to ensure that their problems are addressed.  The communities have seen total abolition of child marriages and child exploitation, and an increase in women’s empowerment and school retention. Above all, the child-friendly villages bring children under the ambit of self-governance and instil leadership qualities in them during their formative years.  These initiatives impact and change the very mindset and social orientation of a village, laying the foundation for the success of children with the utmost respect for their rights.

A model like the Bal Mitra Gram is self-sustainable, easy to replicate and can be scaled across the country in which the government can play an institutional role. These could even be implemented in a PPP mode initially, and later owned by the government.

Thirteen-year old Lalita Duhariya from a village in Alwar district of Rajasthan is a classic example how determined children lead from the front in a battle against gender and caste prejudices that have bedevilled India for centuries. Her village Dera is a Bal Mitra Gram and today she is the President of the National Children’s Council (Maha Bal Panchayat).

Lalita leads from the front to demolish these prejudices and work towards a fairer and more egalitarian society. I had met her in child-friendly villages and she was a ray of hope among all the negative news you get to hear these days. Since her childhood, Lalita had protested against both caste and gender discrimination practised in her village and nearby areas. She persuaded children attending the school to share their meals without bothering about caste. Normally, upper-caste children would not share meals with children from the lower caste. Nor would they eat meals cooked by people belonging to lower castes.

Actively helped and encouraged by her school principal and some teachers, Lalita led a campaign against this kind of caste prejudice and her efforts soon bore fruit. She persuaded her fellow school children to share meals cooked by a lady who belonged to a so-called lower caste.

Earlier, parents of upper-caste children had ordered them not eat those meals. But all children soon started eating together. This was a finite and tangible behavioural change.

A child-friendly village is the miniature of a child-friendly world which requires honesty of purpose, political will and commitment stemming from deep compassion for all children. Together, let’s march towards a child-friendly world and make it a reality in this lifetime.

The author is a child rights activist and journalist.

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