Little Voices, Resounding Change

by Erin Biel:

“We develop only when someone encourages us. It’s like a bean plant, which grows well only if there’s a stick to support it,” Samuel Venkatesan, 17, said in rapid Tamil during an interview with NDTV, a news station based out of New Delhi, India. Samuel’s optimism and pride were unmistakable as he described his UNICEF-supported filmmaking projects. Sharing the story of his childhood in a series of e-mail messages translated by Thomas George, UNICEF communications specialist for Tamil Nadu state, Samuel explained how a children’s journalism project provided him with the support he needed to grow and to thrive.

Samuel has spent his childhood in missionary boarding hostels and is now a 12th-year student at the Government Higher Secondary School in Shoolagiri village, an impoverished community in Tamil Nadu. His father deserted his family when he was five years old, and his family’s only income is the money his mother earns as a domestic helper in Bangalore. At 15, Samuel contemplated dropping out of school and getting a job. His plans, and his life, changed when he heard that a non-profit organization called the Nalanda Way Foundation was coming to his district to select students for a journalism training program.

Samuel Venkatesan, a child reporter from Tamil Nadu, addresses an audience at the 2009 Junior 8 Summit in Rome.

The program, Eastside Story, selects students ages 12 to 18 to receive mentorship in journalism, theater, performing arts, or media. After completing their training, the students research, write about, and film stories related to pertinent issues in their communities. Their final products get published in or broadcast on local and national media, including newspapers, magazines, radio, the Internet, and television.

Seeing this as perhaps his only opportunity to enrich his life, Samuel decided to audition for a spot in the filmmaking program. “For the audition I was asked to speak on any topic of interest for a few minutes. I am a chatterbox and I spoke as usual.” Samuel won over the representatives of the Eastside Story Program with his charm. The video camera they gave him felt like the key to a new future.

An Army of Adolescent Advocates

Samuel joined the ranks of over 7,000 Indian students who are part of UNICEF’s Child Reporters Initiative (CRI), a program that now spans 14 states in India. UNICEF launched the CRI in 2005 to help fund nonprofit programs like Eastside Story and to encourage children from marginalized communities to document the hardships they face. The structure of the program differs from state to state; UNICEF may work directly with local non-profit organizations, establish programs with media outlets or universities, or fosters bonds with local governments so that students can discuss policies that affect their lives with local officials.

At least 90 percent of the child reporters come from marginalized communities marked by poverty or caste discrimination, according to an official internal CRI evaluation conducted in 2008 and 2009. Dalit Sangh, the CRI-sponsored program in Sohagpur, Madhya Pradesh, started as a result of the glaring caste discrimination toward the dalits (members of caste groups once referred to as “untouchables”) in the area. Traditionally the lowest social group in the caste system, for centuries dalits were considered “impure” and oppressed both socially and economically. While caste discrimination is illegal in the Indian constitution, abuse of dalits remains common throughout much of South Asia. In 1999, major floods swept over Sohagpur and the impoverished dalits living in the rural areas were left homeless. However, there was absolutely no media coverage of the dalits’ plight. As Dr. Raote, director and co-founder of Dalit Sangh, remarked in the CRI evaluation, “Reading the biased media coverage, it felt as if the villages did not count for anything. Why? Dalit poverty-stricken families suffered the most.” Along with co-founder Gopal Narayan Authey, Raote decided to encourage young people in the community to document issues of caste-based discrimination.

CRI reporters learn to channel their artistic passions into advocacy tools when exploring problems in their villages. The 300 child reporters affiliated with Dalit Sangh write articles, poems, and drawings for their own student-run newspaper entitled Bacchon ki Pehl (Children’s Initiative). As Anil Gulati, UNICEF communications specialist for Madhya Pradesh, explained, the children have monthly meetings, interact with people from media, and visit newspaper houses to understand how newspapers are published.

Growing Pains

CRI-affiliated programs have not been free of obstacles. Communities are often unwilling to look upon young people as reputable sources of information. Sometimes villages do not want to acknowledge such issues as child marriages, superstition, violence against children, or caste discrimination, which are all commonly reported. According to the CRI evaluation, “The CRI is still at its infant stages, meaning that implementing organizations have little or no past experience of engaging with children.”

The evaluation also noted that the program often does not focus enough on the wider dissemination of content to the general population. For instance, since many CRI initiatives are centered in extremely impoverished communities, most families and even local officials do not have televisions or computers. This reality often defeats the purpose of the videos or Internet articles that the children are encouraged to produce.

Despite these barriers, the CRI has grown substantially, especially considering its status as an “add-on” program under UNICEF, which relegates it to lower funding levels. Many of the child reporters’ articles are regularly published in The Hindu, a national newspaper, and their interviews and films are shown on local cable channels as well as at public events. The child reporters even have their own regularly updated blog, and the student-run newspapers have acquired mass readership within their local communities, including local officials from the education, labor, and police departments.

Many CRI programs have created balapanchayats, a children’s version of the local governing councils found in most Indian villages, to leverage this official attention. These balapanchayats are composed of equal numbers of boys and girls who are elected by their peers, debate issues amongst themselves, and ultimately speak with local officials regarding problems they observe in their villages. In addition, the three-hour-longbalapanchayat meetings are modeled off of the Indian parliamentary process, giving these students insight into the inner workings of their own government.

Bright Futures on the Horizon

According to “Voices from the Field,” another internal CRI report, discrimination against the poor in the village of Baharpur in Madhya Pradesh had reached a crucial point. Ration cards, which give access to government subsidized food stores, were unavailable to the village’s poorest inhabitants. Child reporters in the area decided to write a barrage of articles related to the scarcity of ration cards and poverty discrimination. The students spoke with their families, elders, and even people from other villages. Ultimately, the localpanchayat responded, and now ration cards are more easily accessible to the poor. As Rukmini, a slight yet determined child reporter from Baharpur, commented in “Voices from the Field,” “If we want change, we have to bring it. Not wait for others to dole it out to us. It does not work like that.”

Through the CRI program, the child reporters not only learn to hone their writing skills but also learn a great deal about their inner fortitude. In Uttar Pradesh, three child reporters gave refuge to a 13-year-old girl who was to marry a man 15 years her senior. The children resisted all attempts by the community to remove the girl from their home. Instead, the three reporters communicated with the girl’s parents and local officials in such an articulate and calm manner that the marriage was called off.

As for Samuel, the garrulous 17-year-old from Tamil Nadu, his once bleak future now seems to have no boundaries. In July 2009, Samuel was selected as one of three students to represent India at the UNICEF Junior 8 Summit, which was held concurrently with the G8 Summit in Rome. While at the Summit, Samuel was given the opportunity to address the entire audience about his devotion to equal education for all. “I want free quality education for all kids in developing countries and rights for girls,” he said. Samuel went on to propose a resolution to improve education in impoverished areas of the world and to enact steps that help prevent girls from dropping out of school. His resolution was adopted. Thanks to the CRI program’s mentorship, Samuel feels that he has become a member of greater humanity. “Until now, I belonged to a small place. But now, I am a global citizen.”

Erin Biel ’13 is in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at