New Delhi: Children from the four states of Assam, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra interacted in the first ever online Bal Sabha with Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI) functionaries on International Youth Day (IYD), to raise their issues and concerns created and aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organized by UNICEF and the Ministry of Panchayati Raj in partnership with Nine is Mine, an NGO focused on children, the online discussion also gave an opportunity to PRI functionaries to share how children’s issues are being incorporated in the Gram Panchayat processes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India representative said, “Child participation is an important tenet of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Institutionalizing Bal Sabhas to keep the voices of children from the remotest areas, at the centre of our national planning process is one of the most effective ways of honouring the commitments we have made for children.”
“Gram Panchayats in India”, she said, “are uniquely positioned to involve children in the decision making process as they are the closest to them and they are the first responders in times of crisis such as this pandemic. Hence it is really important that we find ways to make children comfortable to share their viewpoints with policymakers.”
Bal Sabhas cover issues related to early childhood (0-6 years), childhood (6-10 years) and adolescence (10-18 years) at the Gram Panchayat level.
While children spoke about the issues they have been facing during the pandemic ranging from lack of online educational facilities, nutrition, to increased stress, child abuse and child labour, PRI functionaries shared how they have been focusing on education, health nutrition, drinking water and sanitation facilities and child protection for all children.
The discussion led to children and functionaries arriving on innovative and practical ways of listening to children and ensuring that Gram Sabhas remain child responsive and child friendly in their approach and governance, even during the pandemic.
Talking about her experience as a Bal Panchayat Sarpanch, Kajal Ralegaonkar of Ghatkul, Chandra Pur, said, “Earlier, people in my village would not take children seriously and dismiss our views. Ever since I have become the Bal Panchayat Sarpanch, I represent views of my peers on matters that affect us. Elders treat us with respect and pay heed to our views.”
The impact of the pandemic is going to be with us for a while. As we fight the pandemic, we need to keep children at the centre of our efforts and we cannot do this without talking to children, without understanding what their fears and concerns are, what they want and what solutions they offer us.
Speaking about the importance of Bal Sabha, Mr. Khushwant Singh Sethi, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India, said, “Earlier, because of state-level workshops, we had multiple opportunities to listen to the views of children from the Bal Panchayats and be informed at the national level. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted meetings, this has not been possible. Online Bal Sabha is a great opportunity for us, through the support of UNICEF, to hear out both children and Panchayat officials directly on challenges faced by them, that we can address.”
In response to children’s concern on lack of livelihood options for their parents, he requested the children and their parents “to approach their Panchayat representatives to seek opportunities for livelihoods under the MNREGA scheme.”
The online Bal Sabha was organized in accordance with this year’s IYD theme – “Youth Engagement for Global Action,” which sought to highlight the ways in which young people at the local, national and global levels can engage to enrich national and multilateral institutions and processes. The theme this year, also hoped to draw lessons on how children and youth representation and engagement in formal institutional politics can be significantly enhanced.