After more than 10 years I found myself in a classroom again, surrounded by more than thirty 14 to 17-years-old. I was participating in a very important meeting, a celebration in fact.

We were celebrating UN International Youth Day. To quote UN “the engagement and participation of youth is essential to achieve sustainable human development. Yet often the opportunities for youth to engage politically, economically and socially are low or non-existent.” We wanted to address this issue in the communities Aangan works and we thought speaking with the children was a great way to do it.

There was so much excitement. And I was one of the privileged adults witnessing the future of India at work. They were talking about their community, Wadala, identifying issues that they could take action to improve, from gender equality, sexual harassment, working water pumps to open defecation, child labour and child marriage.

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The meeting was organized by Aangan, the child protection organization I am doing my fellowship with, at a school in Wadala, Mumbai. The purpose was to help children understand that they are an important part of the community and they should not be afraid to speak up, share their ideas and start initiatives. Similar conversations were taking place in 10 schools in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, states where Aangan works.

We started with a discussion about what “youth civic engagement” is, and why it’s important for children, who constitute more than 40% of India’s population, to speak up and be heard. The conversation then moved to “My community would be so much better if…” where they identified issues they want to address. Split in 6 groups, they had 20 minutes to come up with ideas, and it was amazing to see their maturity. Each group came in front and role-played the various issues they identified. We had a laugh but all of us in the room knew these were important issues that must be solved.

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In “No one can represent you or your community better than you!” we talked about fostering self-advocacy and what it means to speak up for ourselves, defend ourselves, make our own decisions, and insist on being respected. Growing up I always felt that my thoughts and ideas didn’t necessarily matter for the adults around me, and I think it is very important to change this mindset in children and young people.

In “What kind of citizen do you want to be and what you are able to do?” the children identified their talents and how they can use them to become active citizens. Confidence, artistry, eloquence, friendliness, creativity are important talents that can be used in activist initiatives and our children are very talented indeed.

We concluded the session with “building the vision board for their community” and I think that with encouragement and support from community adults and local authorities all their ideas can come to life. We have examples like this in Bharlai, an urban basti in Varanasi, where in May two hand-pumps stopped working. The girls in the community wrote an application to the ward member, asking for new hand-pumps or to have the existing hand-pumps re-bored. They collected the signatures of over 100 people and met the ward member, presenting the letter to him. When the ward member learnt of their community’s situation, he immediately informed the municipal corporation. Within four days, hand-pumps in the community were re-bored.

When children, community adults and authorities work together, the face of the community changes for the better. Maybe it’s time for all of us to listen to what the world’s 2.2 billion children have to say.

It was an amazing day!

About Aangan:

Aangan is a child protection organization that promotes safe communities for children with a focus on children in dangerous or difficult situations and environments. These are children imperiled by their exposure or vulnerability to isolation, neglect, violence, hazardous or exploitative work, early marriage, juvenile offending, trafficking and abuse. We enable safe communities where children, adults and governments work together to prevent and respond to the harm that these children face.

Follow Aangan on Twitter and Facebook for daily updates, regular people child protection stories, and more.

About me:

I am an ICats  Fellow with the Aangan Trust in Mumbai, India. As part of LGT Venture Philanthropy‘s support to scale proven local solutions, the ICats Program was established to provide additional know-how to social organizations. The program connects social organizations in need of professional know-how, and experts with the desire to apply their knowledge in a meaningful way, thus acting as “Impact Catalysts”. This is how the name ICats came about. Global corporations can integrate the ICats Program into their leadership development programs to promote responsible leadership through first hand experience.