SHAMSHABAD, 26 July 2016 - Every morning girls line up in orderly rows in the courtyard of the K.G.B.V Palamakula School. They dress in neatly washed pink floral uniforms, their brown scarves in pin-sharp folds across their necks. One day, at around nine o' clock, the students walked past 15-year-old Saritha Amgoth, a gentle, smiling, girl who had her hair tied with pristine, white, ribbons. Saritha checked their fingers to make sure that their nails were clean, their hair neatly combed, and their clothes washed.
Saritha is part of the School Cabinet and is the so-called Health Minister. It is her job to see that her friends and classmates understand the importance of good hygiene.
"Most of the time it's good. Everyone is neatly dressed. We help each other with good hygiene. I help other students
cut their hair and cut their nails, and girls can come and ask me if they don't have soap," she explained seriously.
For every girl who failed to meet the hygiene standards, Saritha dropped a small token into a box. Every day, the tokens are counted up, and put into a chart. Every month, Saritha gives a hygiene report on the school.
School cabinets started in India over 15 years ago, and brought about a major change in the attitudes of children, who feel peer pressure and collective responsibility as a class to change their behaviour in positive ways. A typical School Cabinet is made up of students who take charge of education, health and sanitation, sports and cultural affairs and horticulture.
At the K.G.B.V Palamakula School on the outskirts of Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana state, teaching the 200 pupils good hygiene is a priority. Many tribal and disadvantaged children have come here, after having dropped out of the education system. They are mostly from very poor families, and need basic social education on safe drinking water, good toilet habits, and hygiene.
"Teachers here go to tribal areas and convince parents to send the girls here. They tell them that if their girls are educated, then they have a better life and future," said School Principal, Madhavi Sale. "Many of the children here
don't know how to read or write when they come to us, and need a lot of help to progress."
Health Minister, Saritha, like many of the girls in school, comes from a family that struggles to afford the basics. Her father died of tuberculosis, and her mother works as a daily labourer, helping cultivate other people's fields. Her brother, a police officer in her village about 50 kilometres away, took charge of her education and sent her to the K.G.B.V Palamakula School. Saritha said that the school, and the education she has received, have given her a chance for her life to go in a different direction than most tribal girls who marry young and live in poverty.
"Part of the reason that I volunteered to be the Health Minister, is that I want to be doctor. I understand how important good hygiene is for all the students," she said.
Later, before lunch, she supervised the girls as they washed their hands. She made sure that soap was available for them as they each had a turn at the taps, scrubbing their fingers.
In addition to her duties as Health Minister, Saritha also belongs to one of the small school collective groups of around six to eight girls known as 'Balika Sangha'. The girls volunteered to be part of the groups, and are seen as leaders in the school. They meet every Saturday and, with the support of their teachers, discuss difficult and sensitive subjects such as child abuse, adolescent issues, and girl empowerment. Child marriage is also an important subject, as many of the girls come from tribal areas and are married far below the legal age of eighteen.
After their discussions, the girls in the group have the chance to practice their leadership skills. They discuss these issues with other girls who don't belong to the Balika Sangha groups. In this way, messages are passed on from peer to peer, and friend to friend. This is more effective than these issues being raised by an authority like a teacher, because students feel more comfortable discussing and asking questions from each other, and generating joint solutions.
"The Balika Sanghas have proved very effective," said English teacher, Aparna Kondapuram. "For instance, when some of the girls went on holiday back to their village, they realized that there was a wedding taking place - a child
marriage of a girl under sixteen. They informed the school, and we managed to stop the wedding."
Alongside supporting health and hygiene education, UNICEF has also helped implement an innovative IT teaching
programme in government schools. As a pilot intervention, 60 teachers across the state were trained on how to download materials from the Internet and use them to make lessons more engaging and interactive. The science teacher at the K.G.B.V Palamakula School participated in the training, and taught the methods to other teachers at the school. The IT pilot has become so successful, that the state government has decided to scale it up, with UNICEF support.
Students who have participated in these new classes have had their interest in subjects like mathematics and science renewed, as they have become much easier to understand.
"Things feel more real," said 14-year-old Surekha Sabavath. "For example, we learnt about the Himalaya Mountains and were able to see pictures and a video on it. I actually felt like I was standing in Nepal looking at the mountains. I
was able to really understand how ice melts and runs down slopes."
UNICEF, through these education innovations, has helped teachers take a holistic approach to education where hygiene, health, and social issues can be discussed and good practices passed on to students by students. In this way, young people can be equipped to deal with all aspects of their life both inside and outside of classrooms.
"These strategies were devised, implemented, and supported by UNICEF, and have been tested by time. Reaching the children directly has never failed and what they learn through these fun-filled, collaborative activities remain for life. The School Cabinets, Balika Sanghas, and incorporating IT into the school curriculum are all integrated activities. These lead to the metamorphosis that we see - from shy and reticent children to confident ones who do not hesitate to express their views, take informed decisions and act on challenging norms that deny them their rights," said UNICEF Education Specialist, Sukanya Subramanian