60 Years Young
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60 Years Young

By Cecilio Adorna

Tuni Muduli, a Paraja tribal girl from Orissa, is one of the only educated young women in her community.   At the age of 10 her mother died and she found herself forced to become a manual labourer and drop out of school.  Yet her commitment to her studies was unrelenting.  With her modest earnings she paid her way through Class 10 and will graduate this year.  As a tribal girl living in a remote corner of Orissa, what will it take to overcome the many challenges facing Tuni and other girls and boys like her?

If she were to travel 2,259 kilometres to Delhi, and walk into parliament herself, what would she see?  A government with funds available and allocated to the social sector.  A government with policies in place and a new 11th five year plan.  A government that has ratified the convention on the rights of the child.  A government with great intentions, yet struggling to alter the situation on the ground.

The reality in Tuni’s village is that when she visits the primary health centre, despite its directive to stay open 24 hours a day, it is often locked.  When she goes to school, her teachers may well be absent or their posts vacant.  When she needs to use a toilet or fetch water, the broken hand pump results in a forty minute trek away from her home, exposing her to unwanted attentions as a young woman.

So what is it that UNICEF can do both as an international agency working in India to support government and as the agency whose mandate it is to look after Tuni’s well being?

First, UNICEF can put power and knowledge in Tuni’s hands.  If UNICEF has done its job, Tuni will marry later than she would have otherwise. If she becomes sexually active, she will know how to protect herself from deadly diseases like HIV.  If she decides to get pregnant, she will understand how to properly care for her newborn baby so that the child lives long past its 5th birthday.  She will breastfeed.  She will register her child at birth.  And she will provide the baby with lifesaving nutrients and vaccinations.

UNICEF can bring its years of experience in behaviour change to Tuni, who can then pass on the knowledge to her community and help enable a system of village planning, whereby a community is mobilized to improve its own socio-economic conditions collectively.  Currently there are 16 such integrated districts where UNICEF and the government are working to support this bottom up process.  And in each district it all starts by empowering one committed individual like Tuni and showing them how they can bring about social change. 

UNICEF has also helped Tuni to become a child reporter through one of its flagship programs for child participation.  She has been taught how to report on the injustices she faces, and in fact, has already presented her findings to audiences as far away as Europe and as close to home as her own district collector.  This new voice has also given Tuni the confidence and credibility to tell her village elders what she and other children like her need in order to develop and reach their potential. 

But how can Tuni judge whether she has been effective? 

Surely, Tuni will know when she has succeeded.  The legislator for her assembly will have been to her class, will have checked out the primary health centre where she recently took her younger brother, and will have visited her home to discover that she has no safe water source or adequate sanitation nearby.  Only then, when her district representatives feel accountability to Tuni, will the state representatives feel that same accountability, and will it eventually trickle up to a national level. 

Evidently, the next time Tuni visits parliament as a tribal girl from Orissa, each member will know exactly what he or she has to do to improve Tuni’s life and the lives of other girls and boys like her, who are socially excluded on a daily basis.

Social exclusion is a fact in India today where there is economic transformation with little or no social change, and whatever social change is happening is uneven.  The result is widespread disparities, where a girl like Tuni who has escaped female foeticide to be born in a tribal village of Orissa has only a 4 out of 10 chance of staying in school.  And she was one of the lucky ones.  Most likely, her mother had not been educated, and neither will her daughter be if things stay as they are now.  

But this doesn’t have to be the case.  Tuni and her friends, including those forced into early marriage and those who are working as manual labourers just when their minds are at their ripest, can be significantly impacted. 

As India celebrates its 60th year of independence, it is also UNICEF’s 60th anniversary.  Both entities have grown together.  From partnering on Amul milk, the eradication of guinea worm and installation of the first village water-pump to fighting malnutrition, polio and HIV/AIDS, UNICEF has been a catalyst to India’s progress. 

Indeed many achievements have been made, but the truth is that the MDG targets are still far off.  And without urgently reasserting ourselves into the game, we are at risk of being an accomplice to India’s stagnating pace in social change and contributing to the harsh reality facing girls like Tuni. 

Let us, India & UNICEF, together celebrate our 60th with these inspiring girls from Orissa.  They must have a seat at our table if we really want to make a difference.  

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