Fifteen-year-old Sandhya Kamlesh Sahu is a persuasive communicator and she has put this skill to use for turning things around in Shivaji Nagar, a slum with dark, narrow lanes and open grounds – hotspots for sexual harassment and substance abuse. The Class 9 student has her hands clasped behind her back when she shows people around. Almost like a professional, she methodically throws light on issues the children in the area are grappling with. And, it is not too long that you realise the girl is even a better doer. Sahu is part of the “Safe Communities for Mumbai project”, a programme by UNICEF India for protecting children in the most disadvantaged areas of the city. UNICEF has partnered with NGOs in Mumbai to implement the project. Sahu has been working with one of the NGOs, Committed Communities Development Trust (CCDT) since she was 9. Standing in a lane, Sahu and her friends, aged between 9 and 16, engage in an animated discussion about alcohol and drug abuse among adolescents, the need for clean toilets with latches and well-lit roads. Their ‘didis’ (project coordinators) pitch in and share ideas to make their neighbourhood more child-friendly. “It’s been six years with the CCTD… My friends and I have resolved to make everyone … at least here … aware of child labour, sexual harassment, their rights and drug abuse. We try to convince families that education is the most important thing for the development of their children,” she says. “With the help of didis, we have made rapid strides in making the area safer for children, with focus on removing disparities in education and opportunities,” she says.
According to Sahu, her group of 5-6 girls had a year ago conducted a mapping exercise to identify public places where adolescents and adults take drugs and alcohol. “Girls and women faced harassment at the hands of such men… We carried out the exercise and approached the local corporator, who helped in setting up a police beat chowki. Policemen patrol the area now,” she says. Sahu and her friends turned a “hotspot for alcohol and drug addicts” into a playing ground, residents of the area say. The ground, as big as a football field, has a kabaddi arena and a basketball court. The girls identified safe and unsafe zones and pinned them on maps, which were put up at several places for the public to see. Sahu and her friends, project coordinators Prajakta and Kalpana claim, stopped marriages of two children in the locality.
Asked how she joined the effort, she says, “The corporators cannot visit every area, so people have to do their bit and local authorities listen to children. We are getting our voices heard.” “Who will fight for the rights of children if they themselves do not,” she asks. Sahu, who is also part of a community child protection community (CCPC), comprising adults and representatives of children, says community-based action is essential for achieving desired results. “Two such communities have been formed to create a protective environment for children in Shivaji Nagar. Members of the CCPC provide training on a range of issues including child rights, sexual abuse, and related laws,” said Anil Mavlankar and Saroj Thakur, who are part of one such group. Gulabsha (17), a Class 10 student, is spearheading the campaign in a slum in Aarey Colony of Goregaon. The girl and her mother, Tahira Khan, lives in a tiny rented house which can barely accommodate another person. The landlord has asked them to move out of the property by the end of the year.
While the deadline for finding another house is weighing heavily on the mother’s mind, the teenager is more worried about the “safety of girls her age in the neighbourhood”. “Down and out, I had dropped out of school. I had given up. But when I joined NGO Pratyek, I realised there are larger issues,” Gulabsha says. Pratyek is one of the NGOs leading the “Nine Is Mine” campaign, which calls on the government to spend 9 per cent of the gross domestic product on health and education to meet the United Nations sustainable development goals. The NGO provides training to children on their rights and a forum for them to engage with policymakers on related issues. As part of one such effort, Gulabsha met Indian-origin Canadian YouTube star Lilly Singh, who was in July appointed UNICEF’s newest Global Goodwill Ambassador, in New Delhi. “My friends and I discussed with Lilly Singh findings of a survey conducted in Maharashtra on child safety, child labour, girl education and domestic violence. “We are working together to ensure every child gets basic health care and quality education as their non-negotiable right,” she says.
Asked what would she do first if she becomes Maharashtra chief minister for one day, Gulabsha says she will give her all to ensure 9 per cent of the state domestic product is spent on health and education of children. “I will work to remove disparities among children in urban areas and make big cities like Mumbai liveable and safe for them,” she says. A UNICEF statement said in the run-up to Children’s Day, “children from around the world will be taking over key roles in media, politics, business, sports, and entertainment to voice their support for millions of their peers who are unschooled, unprotected and uprooted”.