Pausha Madharia ,16 with the article and cartoon she submitted on faith healers duping villagers. She is writing for the ' Bal Swaraj' - which translates as Children Independence - a bi-monthly newspaper that is a UNICEF Young Reporters program.
By Diana Coulter
DURG, India, 9 May 2011 - When 16-year-old Pausha Madharia speaks, she gives voice to the hopes, dreams and fears of every child in Chhattisgarh.
Standing before the State Assembly, she shared her concerns about child labour, discrimination faced by young girls and the troubles stumbled upon by some simply trying to attend school.
Without hesitation, Pausha told legislators that drunken men sprawled on the road outside a wine shop in her neighbouring village of Murmunda were regularly threatening school children.
“I said people consuming liquor were creating a nuisance for children trying to get past for classes,” she recalls. “I asked that these shops be moved away from any public place.”
She also wrote about the issue in a newspaper just launched here called Bal Swaraj or Children’s Republic. The paper, published twice monthly in the state, started in 2007 as part of UNICEF’s ‘Child Reporters Initiative’.
Wine shop manager Mithlesh Pande says he is now more sympathetic to the children’s concerns. “I am trying to do my job here,” says Pande. “But after the news story, I am also helping the children,” he says, as he arranges to roust a man recently passed out on the nearby road.
The Child Reporters Initiative recruits and trains child volunteers in an effort to fulfil Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that gives children the right to speak freely and express their concerns.
Large segments of Chhattisgarh face violent political unrest, making outreach and provision of social services more difficult for young people and their families.Assisted by NGO MayaramSurjan Foundation, about 1,200 child reporters like Pausha are now writing on issues affecting them, their families and communities in the state.
Highlighting serious issues
With the help of another child reporter and friend, 16-year-old Puja Dewangan, Pausha tackled the dangerous village practice of consulting faith healers, rather than trained doctors. In their village, a child died because of inadequate treatment, they say.
Puja, who recently drew an intricate rangoli, a colourful chalk pattern, outside her home for a festival, helped design a cartoon to accompany the faith healer article. It shows a long-haired holy man waving a wand over his patient’s head, as a skull and crossed bones warn of danger.
A recent issue of BalSwaraj also described the plight of a girl suffering from polio, the perils of chewing tobacco, children working illegally as carpenters and in hotels, and the poverty that prevents them from attending classes.
At Murmunda’s Government Middle School, six students have regularly submitted articles to the newspaper. Umashanker Joshi, 14, wrote about the near-drowning of a 10-year-old boy who fell into an uncovered well.
On a hot afternoon, the child, Devrath Chandel, was reaching into the well and splashing friends when he lost his balance and plunged into the water. The boy’s friend, LakeshLahre, and others managed to make a human chain and pull him out.
After Umashanker wrote about the incident, the sarpanch (village head) saw his story and arranged to have the well outside an abandoned home filled in with dirt.
“I am feeling good that I am working like this to help children,” Umashanker says. His parents, both uneducated labourers, are also proud of him. “They tell me to keep doing this good work.”
The teen also wrote about a five-year-old boy who was performing a tight-rope act at a village festival. Each night, he teetered dangerously over the dusty square while performing his acrobatic stunts. “This is dangerous work and child labour is not allowed,” the teen wrote.
Agents of change
Each child reporter is issued an official press pass that they can show to story subjects. Fourteen-year-old Suman Joshi flashed hers when she visited the public works office to research an article about a flooding drain near the school.
“People understand that we’re trying to make changes here,” says Suman, “and they are impressed by our stories.”
School headmaster Hemraj Sahu says he reads the children’s paper regularly and learns a lot about his community in this manner. “The students are raising problems and showing confidence that most elders can’t display,” says Sahu.