By Mrigakshi Shukla
GANJAM, India, 20 May 2016 - Age has nothing to do with being an embodiment of inspiration. Twelve-year-old Priyanka Nayak from eastern Indian State of Odisha is one such example.
The young girl motivates her classmates in school to harness their potential, has elders in the village approaching her to solve problems, and has been steering change in her own family as well. But the actual process of change began with her— three years back when she became a Minister as part of the School Cabinet.
Priyanka’ father, Bishnu Nayak,is a modest farmer hailing from a remote tribal area in the Ganjam district., Although agriculture is the primary occupation for many, however reasons like crop failure and debts, led the farmers, including Priyanka’s father to take up odd jobs as a labourer, to make ends meet for his family of six. “He often migrates to other states to look for work as well,” recalls Priyanka, second of four siblings.
Priyanka made another beginning, when along with her elder sister and cousins was enrolled in the Jeypore Colony Ashram School in Sanakhemundi Block in District Ganjam, six years back.
This was on the insistence of her uncle. Recalling her first day in schools, Priyanka recalls, “What is this place, I wondered. What was I going to do there? What were all the rooms for? I had no idea.”
The first few years were difficult for Priyanka at school. Unable to interact with her peers and teachers, she relied mostly on her sister and cousins for company. Despite a love for sports and cultural activities, she rarely took up any activity due to fear of rejection, and instead waited to be picked by her teachers.
Towards a new dawn
Things started changing in 2013 when UNICEF, along with the Government of Odisha, commenced training of teachers, principals and administrators on a programme called School Cabinet. The programme was designed to provide a platform for students to understand and experience the benefits of democracy, while allowing them to express their opinions and be more involved in the development of their schools and communities.
A crucial lesson that the School Cabinet teaches children is decision-making—through voting of able candidates who would shoulder different responsibilities of the Cabinet. The Cabinet comprises 14 members, including a chief minister (CM), ministers for health, hygiene and sanitation, food, sports, education, information and communication.
Each minister is aided by a deputy minister. The CM and the Deputy CM represent students at the school management committee, which meets at the end of every month to discuss solutions to existing problems as well as explore possible avenues for improvements.
With the support and encouragement of her teachers, Priyanka became the Sports and Culture Minister. Despite wondering if she was the right fit initially, she eventually started wearing the gloves of her responsibility comfortably. As her confidence grew, she began participating in extracurricular activities, such as singing in the annual function in school where her talent was praised by all.
Like any good leader, Priyanka encouraged her schoolmates to participate in co-curricular activities as well. “My classmate Rashmita is a very good dancer. She would sing and dance when she was alone and no one was watching. I noticed her and told her that she should participate in cultural programmes. I reassured her that if she faced any problem or had queries, I would take care of them as a minister and her friend,” she narrated.
She also noticed that some students were shy of voicing discomfort or pose questions. “Suppose one of us has a health problem that one is not comfortable in speaking about to the teacher. The student can then approach the health minister instead, who will tell the matron. The matron and other teachers will thereby try to solve the problem. If the problem still persists, then the headmistress will be informed.”
Thanks to the design of the programme, Priyanka and her schoolmates also gained a deeper insight into child rights; they learned the importance of votes. They understood the power and responsibilities of being a minister and the importance of democracy.
School Cabinet programme
To implement the core values of School Cabinets, the UNICEF training team coached teachers to equip children with skills of listening and working in association with each other. Once the School Cabinet came into being, children who became ministers were involved as trainers and facilitators on how to promote effective participation, organise meetings, public speaking and advocacy.
The School Cabinet programme has been instrumental in improving self-awareness, leadership and communication skills, as well as motivation in the students. Under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, child participation forums have gone a long way in making schools child-friendly by increasing student participation. The success of the programme has encouraged the state government to expand it to almost 55,000 government schools across the state.
In hindsight, Ganjam district was the perfect place for the school Cabinet Programme – benefits of development haven’t reached this marginalized, tribal community. The children defied doubts about their ability to pick up the nuances of the programme, thereby making it a success.
“A lot of teachers were of the view that these children will not be able to grasp the concept of School Cabinet and child rights,” recalls Manoj Kumar Nayak, District Welfare Officer, who took an active stance in implementing the programme in every school in his district. “We started grooming potential child leaders at school and building capabilities of teachers to lead them in the right direction. Our children began to actively exercise their rights and it was an exciting experience for all of us.” For the teachers, their training showed an immediate result—in the form of an instant connect with the students.
An important element of the program is the concept of gender equality. Self-defence classes have helped in not just increasing the confidence of the girls, but also endowed upon them a sense of equality with the boys in their class. “A training session was organised where we were taught that boys and girls are equal. Anything that a boy can do, a girl can do as well. I am a girl and I am not scared. I can do anything that a boy can do and I will work harder to prove it,’ says Priyanka.
Kanyakumari Majhi, the nodal teacher for sports and culture in Priyanka’s school reminisces about her first training session. “I went back from the training feeling very inspired to engage with my students. There was a lot of distance and fear in their minds that stopped them from connecting with me. The very next day, I played a game of hide and seek with them. Initially, they were confused. But soon they forgot their fears and started enjoying the game. We all had a good laugh and I could feel the spark of a bond between us.”
Even today, Majhi says, a new teacher is introduced to the students with a thrilling game of hide and seek.
With increased confidence among students and better bonding between teachers and them, participation in class and in co-curricular activities has increased. Listening to children and allowing them to contribute to the decision-making processes has also paved the way for better decisions to be made by the administration.
Priyanka, who also represents students in the school management meetings says, “Participation in important decisions has given the children a sense of ownership about the school. Our Cabinet meets every Friday to share our views and discuss issues. Students have four essential rights—they have the right to survival, protection, development and participation. We as leaders have to ensure that these rights are implemented. Our nodal teacher moderates the discussion.”
Benefits of the school cabinet have gone beyond school boundaries, at the community and family level too. “In my village, my neighbour’s daughter was not attending school. I told her that education is as important as domestic work and she should learn both,” Priyanka reminiscences. “I explained to her that her father might want her married , but if she goes to school she might avoid it. My father wanted to marry my elder sister very early but I convinced him that she is not mentally and physically ready for it. He agreed and did not get her married. She is now studying in my school with me.”
The young girl has also taken up the cause of sanitation—advocating the use of toilets instead of open defecation. She is trying to convince her father to build a toilet just like the one she has in school.
Priyanka’s father Bishnu proudly talks about the remarkable change in Priyanka. “The villagers come looking for her when they are organising events. She knows the right way to do things. She is not shy or scared of anything. She is a very strong girl. She will achieve any goal she sets her mind to.”
When she grows up, Priyanka hopes to be a singer and music teacher. Today, thanks to her school and lessons of the School Cabinet, she is more empowered than ever before to fulfill her dreams.
“I can take important decisions for myself and if the need arises I can take decisions for my family and village,” the Priyanka says beaming with confidence.