The United Nations’ International Youth Day, celebrated every year on August 12, is an opportunity to highlight issues faced by young people around the world.
In the current global climate – the refugees fleeing crises in Syria, Iraq and Libya, the instability in Africa, and the financial woes of Greece and the rest of Europe – children and the youth, as always, are the worst affected. Yet, even in such adverse circumstances, it is the youth who are the drivers of development and change.
This year’s theme – “Youth Civic Engagement” – is particularly relevant for the children in the communities that Aangan works in. Most of these children live in bastis or hutments, which have little by way of access to basic services such as water supply, electricity, schools, hospitals or even toilets. International Youth Day is, therefore, also an opportunity to recognise and promote the participation of young people in the development of society.
Through programs aimed at building their resilience and knowledge, and supporting them to negotiate with adults and the government, these children are empowered to raise their voices on the issues that impact them and their communities. They can play a vital role in shaping their society because no one can represent their communities better than them. Their thoughts and ideas, therefore, matter a great deal, and this idea is something that must be inculcated in both adults as well as children.
Therefore, on August 12, children in 10 communities across four of the states that Aangan works in came together to discuss the issues pertaining to their community that they would like to tackle. Through role-plays, songs and debate, they spoke of how they can use their skills and talents to bring about effective change in their neighbourhoods.
Raghav*, 15, said his community would be much improved “if everyone kept their own homes clean”, and did not throw garbage everywhere. “It spreads diseases,” he explained. “If we stopped littering and made sure the water supply is not contaminated, a lesser number of people will fall ill, and we won’t be spending so much money on hospitals and medicines.”
Apart from more immediately actionable issues such as cleanliness, hygiene and open defecation, children also spoke about the sexual harassment girls faced in their basti, gender equality, and why education for girls was of vital importance.
“A mother, a wife, and a sister are all first and foremost girls. No society can function without girls and women. Then, why are we so oppressed and considered lesser than men?” 15-year-old Pooja* asked the room.
Santosh*, a 14-year-old youth representative on his school management committee, stressed on the importance of educating every child, regardless of their gender. “Boys who don’t go to school end up loitering around and whiling away their time. So many of them start doing drugs. Education is important, most definitely for girls, but equally so for boys.”
In many of the communities that Aangan works in, children have already worked to get streetlights installed, hand pumps repaired, out-of-school children enrolled in school, negotiated with government officials to improve sanitation services, and helped families gain access to government services and schemes. Through their actions, entire communities have benefitted.
Initiatives such as these most effectively demonstrate the power of youth, and the change they are capable of.
*Children’s names have been changed to protect their identity.
The author, Samyukta Maindarkar, is Communications Associate at Aangan.