Samudra Gupta Kashyap : Guwahati, Sun Jan 27 2013, 01:40 hrs
Md Fazal Haque, 15, a student of Class 9 at Anchalik High School of Simina village in Kamrup district of Assam, used to spend most of his free time playing or gossiping. But now he and nine other boys and girls have found something else to keep themselves busy—they look out for families who are marrying off their under-age and school-going girls and raise an alarm.
Fazal and his classmates Babar Ali, Aqib Hussain, Mamoni Begum, Karabi Kalita and Jyotsna Begum are members of a group called Asha Rengoni, which means ray of hope. They not only learn about child rights, but also intervene in cases of child marriage. Part of a programme called Young Reporters Initiative, there are more than 90 such groups in the districts of Kamrup and Dibrugarh. "At least 10 girls from our school dropped out because they were married off, with their parents citing tradition as well as economic hardship," says Aquib. They have intervened and stopped two child marriages so far.
A few groups in Dibrugarh district too are running campaigns against child marriage. Momi Munda, 18, member of a Young Reporters group, Chetana, at Khowang, says many people, especially tea plantation labourers, don't even know that there is a minimum age for a girl's marriage.
Young Reporters Initiative is run jointly by the Assam branch of Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust (KGNMT) and Unicef, involving more than 1,000 children in Kamrup and Dibrugarh districts since 2009. "It is a kind of multi-purpose initiative where we are not only talking about child rights directly with select groups of children, but also supporting them in taking rights-related issues to the community," says Damayanti Devi, the state secretary of KGNMT, who heads the joint initiative.
"Child marriage, which is higher than the national average in eight districts of Assam, is one issue with this initiative," says Ved Prakash Gautam, child protection officer with Unicef, Assam. Unicef data says Assam's marriage prevalence among under-18 girls stands at 39.9 per cent while the national average is 42 per cent. Districts with figures that are above the national average include Barpeta (53.6), Kokrajhar (50.6), Dhubri (48.6), Karbi Anglong (46.3) Karimganj (45.3) and Dhemaji (44.2), as also Nagaon and Baska.
While child rights as defined by the UN Convention on Child Rights remain the focus of this initiative, Young Reporters also conduct surveys and field reports on child labour, sanitation, safe drinking water, malnutrition, immunisation, primary education, mid-day meal, birth registration and delivery of various Integrated Child Development Services programmes.
Last year, village elders at Sarulah in Hajo block of Kamrup district took the help of the local Young Reporters group in mounting a campaign against drugs and liquor. "The group not only helped coin slogans and cartoons against drugs and liquor, but also composed jingles and staged street plays," says Himarani Baishya, coordinator of the project.
Recently, 15 children each from Dibrugarh and Kamrup carried out a random survey in two villages near Guwahati, during which they discovered several problems. "The findings of these groups are published as news and features in Mukta Akash, a quarterly newsletter. This newsletter is not only distributed in schools, panchayats, clubs and mahila samitis in the two districts, but is also sent to government functionaries, including the chief minister," says Damayanti Devi. Many of these reports have had an impact. In Dibrugarh district, a wooden bridge which was damaged in floods was repaired only after a Young Reporters group wrote about it.