In a time of smartphones and stupid people, it’s invigorating to hear stories about children who aren’t content with the hand that’s been dealt to them and choose to make a difference in their own lives, and in the lives of others in their communities. In the process, they serve as a nudge to so many others to do their bit. In celebration of such children on the one day of the year dedicated to them, we rounded up a few stories of courage and wisdom that deserve all the attention they can get.
I. Babar Ali
The Youngest Headmaster in the World
Based in Murshidabad, West Bengal, Babar Ali was given the title of the youngest headmaster in the world by BBC, in October of 2009 when he was only 16 years of age, and also a student at the time. He began teaching at the age of nine, mostly as a game, but then proceeded to teach on a larger scale at a school he founded in the backyard of his parents’ home. As of 2009, the school remained an outdoor one, boasting of up to 800 students and 10 teachers, including Ali, all of them students at either school or college level. Once the school gained some momentum, help started pouring in from every corner - Babar’s own teachers, monks at the local Ramakrishna Mission, sympathetic IAS officers, even local cops volunteered at the school as teacher. Children from nearby villages would walk as long as 4 kilometres to attend this school, owing to its tuition-free education. The school has been recognized as contributing to the increasing literacy rates in this socially and economically underprivileged area, with Babar campaigning towards - and succeeding in - having the school recognized by local authorities when he realized that the enrolled students would receive a free portion of rice at the end of each month. In 2009, Babar won an award for his incredible efforts from the Real Hero Award of the Indian English news channel CNN-IBN.
II. Kartik Sawhney
Blind Teen VS. Vision-less Indian Education Officials
It is due to the closed-minded and outdated ideas that the Indian education system is structured within that people choose to explore options outside the country. Kartik Sawhney is one such individual. Being visually impaired meant education was a constant struggle – from having to acclimate to English, to integrating into a mainstream school with, for the most part, able-bodied students. The hoops he jumped through earlier in his education faded in comparison to the odds that were stacked against him in grades 11 and 12, and subsequently, while applying to colleges. Having decided he was going to pursue science and computer science when he was only in the 7th grade, he knew exactly what stream he was going to sign up for. Little did he know that CBSE would straight-up refuse to let him follow his passion. Before Sawhney rallied against this regressive policy, CBSE allowed blind students to only study subjects like music. After writing almost 30 letters to CBSE officials, and a little help from the principal at his school, Kartik finally managed to overturn their decision, which led to CBSE issuing a country-wide circular allowing blind students to pick whatever stream they wished to. Despite scoring an impressive 95% on his 12th grade board examinations, there was still one major roadblock in the way for him to get accepted to the IITs – their guidelines made it practically impossible for blind students to successfully complete the entrance exams. Invariably, he was forced to look outside the country, which led him to apply to Stanford and get accepted with a full-ride scholarship.
III. “The Supergoats”
The Football Girl Wonders
An NGO named YUWA’s valiant efforts to rehabilitate young victims of child marriage and human trafficking are commendable. Young girls are fostered and trained in the sport of football by Franz Gastler, an American expat and founder of the NGO YUWA in Ormanjhi, a village on the outskirts of Ranchi. 18 of these girls represented The Yuwa India Under-14 girls team at the prestigious Gasteiz Cup in Spain, this being their first foray into the world - they had never stepped out of their little village in Jharkand before, let alone India. They were fondly referred to as the supergoats by the officials in Spain because they were often found playing practice games barefoot because they had limited gear that they were saving for the actual tournament games. If this isn’t bad enough, they were also slapped, kicked and asked to clean the floors by local bureaucrats when they approached them for birth certificates, essential documentation while applying for a passport. They were only able to get their passports when Gastler fought for their cause with the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi. All their past struggles were forgotten when they placed 3rd at the tournament, and received their trophy and medals in traditional Indian garb, all the while screaming ‘Vande Mataram’.
IV. Bilaal Rajan
Fundraising Since the Age of 4
A resident of Ontario, Canada, Bilaal always wanted to lend a helping hand wherever he could. His philanthropic efforts truly began to take shape when his parents first told him about the earthquake in Gujarat and how many people had suffered because of the same. At the age of four, he managed to raise C$350 for relief funds in Gujarat just by selling oranges. By the time he was eight years old, his fundraising had grown by leaps and bound - Bilaal single-handedly raised $50,000 for children affected by the tsunami in South-East Asia in December of 2004. He became UNICEF’s youngest fundraiser and advocate when he launched a campaign in collaboration with UNICEF days after the tragedy struck. He also created his own website, called www.handsforhelp.com and to date, has raised over $5 million for various causes all over the world. In July 2009, Rajan met personally with Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa to discuss several of his upcoming youth initiatives. He also spoke to students at several schools in South Africa. The same year, a documentary was made about his journey, titled My Name is Bilaal. He has rightfully been the recipient of more than twenty awards, including the 2008 Top 20 Under 20 Award, the 2009 Huggable Hero Award, the 2009 Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship, the 2010 Kids to Kids National Service Award and the 2010 Changing Our World/Simms Award for Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy.
V. Adolescent Girls Club
Advocating Against Child Marriage
Like many other girls in Assam, Rupali and Anita are actively fighting against this regressive tradition that is claiming so many victims each day. Reasons for child marriage vary in different parts of the country, and Assam also has a set of problems that lead to a higher rate of child marriage. For one, girls in Assam are considered better suited for work in the gardens, like the plucking of leaves, and are easily employed by the time they hit their teens. Once they become wage earners, they are deemed to be of marriageable age. Poor levels of schooling is another important factor. Tea gardens have schools that run only up to the primary level. For the higher classes, parents have to send their girls to schools further away, which means they tend to drop out owing to safety concerns. The third reason is one that is exclusive to this area - elopement between young girls and boys is a common occurrence in Assam, and child marriage is a valid solution to this, according to the elders in the community. However, this isn’t entirely a lost battle. A positive approach to tackle child marriage in the tea gardens has been the Adolescent Girls Clubs run by ABITA in partnership with UNICEF. The clubs in the tea gardens have reported 144 cases of child marriage between 2008-2010, and have successfully stalled 12 of them – definitely a triumph, considering how steeped this community is in this devastating practice.
VI. Rekha Kumari
Fighter On a Wheelchair With an Army of Children in Tow
Outwardly, Rekha Kumari is just another 22-year old young woman with special needs. She has been on a wheelchair since she was two years old, after she was diagnosed with polio, but today she stands tall, spearheading the “World We Want” campaign. The initiative that demands equal rights and opportunities for children living with disabilities across the world. She has been a key campaigner in the movement, along with an 11-member team of children and together they have created a ‘Children’s Manifesto’, which she took to New York last year. At the 68th United Nations General Assembly, Rekha drew attention of the world leaders to their collective war cry, urging them to provide a respectable life with the same opportunities provided to able-bodied people to a large chunk of the world population that often goes unnoticed by a majority of officials and policy-makers. Rekha has brought together differently-abled children from across India to demand adequate space and equal rights and opportunities in education for them. Considered to be a first-of-its-kind initiative in the world, they have come up with a Children Manifesto that calls for a world where “rights are real and not mere promises” and where children with disabilities are entitled to “a disability certificate, a safe childhood and a barrier free environment”.
VII. The Girls Project : Parul, Namita, Jasmina, Shampa, Rakhi
Task force Against Child Marriage
This project is a collaborative effort between the Government of West Bengal and Landesa, that works towards keeping young girls in school and not falling prey to child marriage. Currently, there are over 40,000 girls partaking in this project, learning about their right to own and inherit property, and receiving training in intensive organic gardening skills in order to maximise the utility from their land. Here are five girls from the program that have fought against all the odds stacked against them:
i. Parul - This 17-year old had other ideas when her father announced that it was time for her to marry the day she graduated from high school. Through the Girls Project, Parul learned agricultural skills and her rights to an education and to inherit land. Equipped with all the right knowledge, she planted a cluster of timber trees on her parents’ land and enrolled in college. A few years down the line as the timber trees mature, she plans to harvest the trees to pay for her college tuition.
ii. Namita - Having lost her mother at the age of 9, and subsequently her older siblings when they were sent to the big city to earn money in order to support the family, Namita, now 16 years of age, is actively involved with the Girls Project and is using skills she has acquired to not succumb to familial and societal pressures. She is making full use of the only tool she has at her disposal - land. The spinach that she grows by her father’s cowshed, the bottle gourds on the roof of their home, and the spices grown along the homestead’s perimeter are all helping to feed her family. By reducing the financial burden on her father, she is gaining an upper hand that she can use to convince her father to let her rejoin school, and not get her married off young.
iii. Jasmina - By putting her knowledge of gardening to use, and planting a small garden on her family property, 16-year-old Jasmina has not only been able to improve her standing in her family, but also re-enroll in school.
iv. Shampa - 15-year-old Shampa was pressured into marriage the day her family thought her eligible for the same, but having gained a valuable skill-set through her participation in the Girls Project, she convinced her family to not get her married and let her continue her schooling. She proved that she wasn’t a burden on her family by putting food on the table and being able to earn enough to pay for her school fees. She uses every square inch of space available to cultivate produce, including the space under her bed for growing mushrooms.
v. Rakhi - Rakhi was de-registered from school by the time she was 15 because her family could no longer afford to fund her education, but being a determined student, she found her way back into the classroom by the age of 17. She planted a small kitchen garden - no bigger than two parking spaces - and grew spinach and gourds, which now feeds her family, pays for her education and has helped her evade child marriage.
VIII. Poorna Malavath
Youngest Girl to Climb Everest
At the age of 13, when most girls are dabbling in teenage pursuits, Poorna Malavath had an entirely different plan - she decided to climb Mount Everest and successfully became the youngest girl to do so. As of May 25, 2014, Poorna is the youngest girl to ever climb Mount Everest and in fact, she missed the record of youngest climber by just one month. Done over a period of 52 days, Poorna encountered the harshest of conditions - from extreme temperatures to lack of food to steep terrain. Poorna hails from an underprivileged background in a small village in Andhra Pradesh, where the locals struggle for basic necessities like water and electricity and has never been on a journey like this before. Despite being dalit farmers in this small village, her parents supported her throughout her journey.
IX. Shubham Banerjee
Young Innovator with an Incredible Vision
Shubham Banerjee only learned about Braille, the tactile writing system used by the visually impaired in the 7th grade, one year before he revolutionised Braille printing. As he explored Braille, Banerjee came to find the high cost of Braille printing, which usually cost upwards of $2,000. Built using Lego’s Mindstorms EV3 blocks and little pieces from Home Depot , Braigo Lab’s printer (Braigo stands for Braille and Lego) actually turned out to be functional. Banerjee is convinced that his innovation could solve a long-running problem that’s been a constant deterrent to visually impaired people - that of high-costing Braille printers. He believes that his printers could cut down the cost from $2000 to less than $500. Making Banerjee the youngest tech entrepreneur, Intel confirmed that they would invest in his company because they were highly impressed by his vision and efforts. This has also deservedly earned Banerjee a lot of recognition, including The Tech Awards 2014 and an invitation to the White House Maker Faire, an event that awards student entrepreneurs and innovators.
Words: Rhea Baweja