LUCKNOW, India 25 November 2009 – Child labour, kidnapping, sexual abuse, child marriage and drug abuse – these are some of the many issues challenging children growing up in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Child delegates from all over the state gathered in its capital, Lucknow, on Saturday 21 November to share their experiences and call on state government officials to take action to ensure them a better future.
More than one hundred boys and girls aged between eight and 18 – all elected leaders within their schools - came together for the special children’s summit,. The event was a joint initiative by UNICEF and the Uttar Pradesh Education Department to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The children’s impassioned pleas drew praise from the local officials who were present and promises of action on several of the issues raised.
Fifteen year old Sumandra Chandra was one of a number of child speakers whose presentations received enthusiastic applause.
“In some villages children are completely deprived of education,” he told the 500-plus assembly. “All children should have the right to go to school.”
Uttar Pradesh has more children than any other Indian state. According to Indian Government data, it also has among the highest incidences of school dropouts, child labour, child marriage and malnutrition.
Many child delegates complained that the government schools in their areas taught only up to the age of 13 or 14 after which children were often sent out to work. They called for classes to be continued till the age of 18 so they could attain qualifications and the chance to go on to third-level education.
There were also requests for play areas within schools, on-call doctors, as well as more and better teachers.
The State Education Minister Dharam Singh Saini said: “What the children have said here today has touched my heart. We, the government, are looking into the situation so that we can give them what they want. We have already introduced changes but now we are moving forward and working on the changes that the children are asking for.”
The minister promised an increase in number of teachers and a range of improvements in state education facilities.
The Principal Secretary (Basic Education) Anup Chandra Pandey, pledged improvement in teacher–student ratios, more emphasis on early learning, and better monitoring of teacher performance.
The child speakers also drew attention to other issues affecting them including healthcare, gender disparity, stigma attached to disability, environment, and their right to privacy and respect.
“Children have the right to be heard,” 14-year-old Kasifa Bano told the summit. “They should speak up so that people will listen to and value their views.”
The summit followed a two-day workshop during which the children participated in a variety of activities aimed at raising awareness about their rights as set out by the UN Convention. While some worked on speeches, others wrote poems, newsletters and designed posters.
Depicting the issue of female foeticide, 12-year old Shiv Kumar drew a man thrusting a sword into a pregnant woman’s belly. He explained that he was aware that some women in his village opted for abortions after visiting the local ultra sound clinic and discovering the baby they were expecting was a girl. “I didn’t know it was a crime,” he said. “Now I do.”
Augustine Veliath, Communication Specialist, UNICEF Lucknow, said, “Things will not change overnight. But to me it’s of great value that these children have been able to articulate what they need, what they want, and what is not available to them right now.”
Adele Khudr, Chief of the UNICEF Field Office, Lucknow, added, “This is an opportunity for government officials to hear from the mouths of children themselves about how they feel their rights are being met now and their vision of Uttar Pradesh in the future.”