"My school did not have a dustbin and I raised the issue at the child cabinet. As a result it got installed. Earlier, I wouldn't have put too much thought about this, Ravi told IANS."
By Azera Parveen Rahman

Dibrugarh (Assam), May 21 - They are perceptive, have no biases, are honest and don't mince their words. Articles by children reporters of Mukta Akash (Free Sky), a unique newspaper in Assam, nimbly drive home their point as they write simply, yet strongly, on issues affecting them.

The local administration is left with no option other than to adopt various remedial measures in response to these little journalists' reports on health, education, social traditions, and child rights.

Started jointly by the Kasturba Gandhi National Mission Trust (KGNMT) and UNICEF in 2009, Mukta Akash is an initiative to promote and nurture child rights. It aims to empower children of vulnerable communities, like the tea gardens and river islands, with the pen to be able to identify issues that need to be talked about, and to actually bring about change.

Safe drinking water and sanitation in schools and Anganwadi centres, for instance, is big on the children's agenda. In the October 2013 issue of the four-page, quarterly newspaper, 15-year-old Mustafa Ahmed and 13-year-old Iptifa Begum highlighted a case study of the absence of a hand pump in an Anganwadi centre in Borborua in the Dibrugarh district of Assam.

Due to the absence of a hand pump, children going to the Anganwadi centre don't have access to clean drinking water, their report said, quoting people living in the vicinity who said the children come to the villagers' homes when thirsty. No amount of complaining to the authorities has helped, they added.

Damayanti Devi of the KGNMT in Guwahati recalls one of the several surveys that the children reporters carried out in the Kamrup district.

The survey was in a village in Sualkuchi on potable water and how many households had access to it. The children went door-to-door for the survey and also prepared a report on the presence of toilets in each household, Devi told IANS.

The report was then shared with the village panchayat, and the ill effects of unsafe drinking water and open defecation -- water borne diseases and diarrhoea -- were discussed. They also drew the conclusion that diseases don't just affect health but also lead to absenteeism in school.

The report was also sent to the state health department, she said.

In another instance, a broken bridge -- the only connecting link of a village in the Nalbari district -- inspired the children to take up the issue. The child cabinet of the local school invited the deputy commissioner and handed him their article on how the bridge is the village's lifeline, and that being broken was an open invitation to a big mishap.

The DC immediately ordered the bridge to be mended, Devi said.

This initiative is, at the moment, in two districts of Assam -- Dibrugarh and Kamrup -- and targets children of vulnerable communities like those of the tea tribe and those living in the river islands.

Before venturing into writing, they are given a four-day training in which they are taught the basics of reporting, interviewing, conducting surveys, writing and editing, and usage of cartoons in communication. The newsletter is in Assamese and is distributed in government offices among others.

The coming together of an edition of the newsletter is a community-based process, because the children discuss their ideas and consult the village panchayat as well. They also take the help of the ASHA and Anganwadi workers. The children are divided into different groups and at the moment there are 1,200 children involved in 67 groups, said Hima Baishya, consultant with Unicef and involved in the project.

Writing sensitively about their counterparts is given great care by the young reporters.

Sunita Maji, 17, of the tea garden community, for instance, says, We must be conscious of our responsibility, and seek the consent of the children we want to write about, taking care that they are not affected adversely because of our writing.

Maji had recently written on the right to education while mentioning the example of 13-year-old Amiya Begum who has to babysit her young sibling even as her dream of going to school remained just that.

Child marriage again is an important issue taken up by the children.

A common practice in the tea gardens as well as among the minority community living on the river islands, Assam's child marriage prevalence of 40 percent may be lower than the national average of 43 percent but in these pockets the numbers sway higher.

Karishma Nath, 14, wrote the story of 13-year-old Sumi who was married off by her widowed mother.

Sumi was not ready for marriage, physically and mentally. She was tortured by her in-laws and suffered a lot, but kept quiet. When her mother realised her daughter's agony, she brought her back home. By then her health deteriorated and she became very timid, Nath wrote poignantly, highlighting the ills of child marriage.

Ravi Tanti, 14, says that reporting and writing on issues affecting children as well as on civic issues has made him more conscious as an individual and confident as well.

My school did not have a dustbin and I raised the issue at the child cabinet. As a result it got installed. Earlier, I wouldn't have put too much thought about this, Ravi told IANS.

(Azera Parveen Rahman can be contacted at [email protected] This story is part of a National Media fellowship work supported by National Foundation of India)


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