VISAKHAPATNAM, India, 22 July 2016 - The two best friends, 16-year-old Jadda Satyavathi and Bhargavi Kenguva, held on to each other's hands, and faced the group of 125 children who were gathered around them in a circle. Gradually, Jadda lost her shyness and began to tell the story of how five years ago, according to the tradition in the area, her family forced her 14-year-old sister to marry her mother's brother. Now at nineteen-years-old, her sister has two children, and is finding her life very difficult.
"After her first child was born, my sister became very sick," Jadda said. " I was very small, but I felt that it was wrong.
In child marriage, mothers are not always ready for pregnancy."
Child marriage was just one of the issues that was raised during the Adolescent Reporters Workshop that took place in the seaside city of Visakhapatnam. UNICEF and its civil society partners, NATURE, and the Bal Vikas Foundation, organized the meeting to inform children about their rights and to empower them to express themselves. Children, like Jadda, shared their diverse experiences, and learnt more about human rights and resources.
After discussions with the group and moderators from the NGOs, Jadda learnt that although India passed a law in 2012 prohibiting child marriage, the implementation of this needs to be stricter to prevent cases like her sister's from reoccurring. This kind of realization was the goal of the workshop, where adolescents had the chance to be inspired to try and change their society.
"In India, we need to cultivate a social norm where children are given the opportunity to express themselves freely, and adults listen to them and appreciate that they have something meaningful to say," said UNICEF Advocacy and Communication Specialist, Prosun Sen.
As part of an IKEA-funded initiative to empower adolescents, similar efforts will be made by UNICEF across three countries: India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In India, Visakhapatnam is one of the four chosen districts for implementation of this project, chosen primarily due to the high incidence of child marriage and large tribal population.
The issues raised in the workshop reflected the different backgrounds of the young people taking part. Many of the children came from the slum areas around Visakhapatnam, but some of them were studying, whilst others had dropped out of school due to poverty. Social services, relationships, and family expectations were among the subjects raised by different children.
"Nobody is better positioned than children to explain how different government services affect their lives," said S. Balaraju, Founder of the NGO NATURE. "Here we teach adolescents about their rights, as well as their responsibilities. Meetings like this are also an opportunity for peer to peer learning."
Jadda's best friend, Bhargavi, who was dressed to match her friend in pink and black, wanted to ask her peers how she could deal with being teased by boys. Living in one of the slum areas of Visakhapatnam, she often experiences catcalls when she walks past groups of men.
"I want to be empowered, and know how I can deal with this. I'm sure other girls face the same experience. It's helpful to get people to understand the problem, especially boys, and be able to stand up for myself," she said.
Sixteen-year-old Ravada Naidu wanted to learn more about the right to education. Ravada's father earns a modest living as daily labourer, and can't afford to send him to a private school where lessons are taught in English. Ravada studies telecommunications in the local language, Telugu, and is unsure whether he will be able to get a good job.
"The government should be aware about how unfair the education system is. We need to motivate high level officials to open good schools, so there is no disparity between rural and urban people," he said.
This motivation to lobby different audiences is at the heart of the project, which will eventually train adolescents as youth reporters. UNICEF and its partners have enlisted the participation of over 500 adolescents from Visakhapatnam city alone to meet in smaller groups to discuss issues that concern them on a regular basis. They are then trained to tell their stories through their writing, pictures, and short videos captured using a simple mobile phone, and eventually load these onto a web-based digital platform created especially for them.
"Already we can see the progress made in this workshop as the children have discussed how some their important rights have been denied, for example due to parents' preference for boys over girls. It is encouraging to see young people realize that they have rights. They are questioning themselves, and freely discussing their issues and they want to share their views with us," said Professor Narava Prakash Rao, Founder of the NGO, Bal Vikas Foundation.
Finally, the project aims to target wider society and involve journalists, reporting on adolescent issues, and allowing adolescents themselves to access to a wider audience through established media. From child marriage to health issues, the young people at the workshop became better at expressing themselves, as they grew more confident that their voices had value.
"We've learnt more about other people's experiences. There are solutions to problems, but many of us don't know about them. By sharing our knowledge with others, we can do better," said Ravada. "I'm excited to begin!"