Young journos ushering development in rural Karnataka

It's no child's play to coax villagers to send their wards to schools or force local authorities to provide drinking water and regular health check-up facilities at government-run schools located in remote villages of Karnataka. Developmental changes, which grown-ups found difficult to introduce in their villages, have been brought by none other than a group of 40-odd children.

These school-going kids, mostly in their early teens, are cleverly using the power of pen as they have donned the role of citizen journalists to report and write on issues plaguing their schools and villages.

Since last year, children from four districts of Karnataka -- Bellary, Tumkur, Raichur and Chamarajanagar - are regularly coming up with wall newspapers. Mostly handwritten, the wall newspapers in local Kannada language are put up in public spaces like schools, hospitals, market areas and office of panchayats to grab the attention of the readers on various issues. The effort of the children to create awareness has already started paying rich dividends.

Child Reporters

When C Somakka, C Prakash and Mudigudikenchappa, three active citizen journalists from Devasamudra Government High School in Devasamudra village, located in Bellary district, wanted clean drinking water and regular health check-ups in their school, they highlighted the issues on wall newspapers. It resulted in local authorities waking up to the problems faced by the school, a common phenomenon in almost all rural schools of India.

Now, children at the school have access to clean drinking water and health check-ups by doctors have become a regular scene.

"Lack of drinking water facility acted as a huge deterrent as most of the children often used to bunk classes. It was difficult for children to attend classes for six-eight hours a day without having access to drinking water. So, we decided to highlight the problem in the wall newspaper. The local authorities took notice of the problem. Now, we have clean drinking water facility in the school," says Somakka.

After tasting initial success as a writer, whose effort, along with her friends has become the talking point of her village, the 14-year-old wants to seriously pursue a career in writing. "I want to be a writer, espousing the cause of downtrodden and marginalised section of the society through my writing. I hope to change lives through my writings," added Somakka.

Similarly, when children started writing on wall newspapers to encourage guardians and parents to send their wards to schools, the enrollment of students in the government-run school of sparsely populated Mariyammanahalli village started picking up.

Members of local NGOs said enrollment had picked up by almost 5% after the issue of parents' reluctance to send their children, especially girls, were written on wall newspapers.

"After reading in the wall newspaper about the importance of providing formal schooling to children, I have decided to send my six-year-old daughter to school. Earlier, I had decided not to send her to school. I was of the opinion that poor people like us should not spend money in educating their daughters. I was wrong, and now, I want to correct myself. Thanks to the children for opening my eyes," said Ganesh, a small-time farmer.

In Arralekatti village in Chamarajanagar district, after child reporters highlighted the problem of absence of any paediatrician in the village hospital, one child specialist was immediately put on duty.

"Now, a child specialist from Mysore regularly visits our village. We're glad that members of gram panchayat took the matter seriously after we wrote about it. The members sent letters to the district headquarters to address the problem. Now, ailing children of the village have better health care facilities," said Maheshwari, a 13-year-old girl, who is enjoying every bit of her work as a citizen journalist.

She, along with two of her friends, Shiv Kumar and Simdhu spent almost two hours daily after school visiting various places across their villages to meet people and know about their problems.

The idea of empowering children to help them express freely is the brainchild of Unicef. Unicef has partnered with Karnataka Child Rights Observatory (KCRO), a Bangalore-based child rights' group, to carry forward its work.

Article 12 of UNCRC professes to respect the views of children. Moreover, society and its various agencies should provide assurance to children to help express their views freely, in all matters affecting children.

Article 13 of UNCRC further states that a child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice.

UNCRC is an international agreement that protects the human rights of children under the age of 18.

Elaborating on the project of turning rural children into reporters, Prosun Sen, communication specialist at Unicef said entire idea is a model based on child participation.

"The idea is to provide a platform to the children to express themselves freely. Through the project, young citizen journalists can observe, relate and document various issues, both negative and positive, at their schools, homes and society at large," added Sen.

Praising the effort of Unicef and KCRO, Vasudev Sharma, a member of Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR) said it was encouraging to see children bringing about change at the grassroots level.

"Children always have a powerful voice. Whenever children are given a chance to express themselves freely, they've always succeeded in attracting attention due to their unbiased views. Now, it is time that change should happen at grassroots or village level," added Sharma.

Before starting on the project, Unicef and KCRO, with the help from local NGOs, have trained the children in nuances of reporting and writing.

"Children are quick learners. They are also very gusty and do not shy away from tackling serious issues. Right from access to education, health care facilities to security measures needed at village level, children have touched upon various issues affecting villages of Karnataka," said Raghavendra, a member of Child Rights Trust (CRT), a local NGO working in Bellary district.

Besides reporting on local issues, the wall newspapers also highlight success stories of children and villagers, in an attempt to boost the morale of the rural population.

Earlier, the 40 young reporters came to Bangalore to acquaint themselves with city life and its various facets.

During their two-day visit, children visited various important city landmarks, including schools and met key people to write about their first-hand experience.

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