Shanta Choudhury doesn’t look like an agent of social change. Just into her teens and under four feet tall, the thin diminutive girl from Nepal was at the second Children’s World Water Forum (CWWF) in Mexico City in March to show what she could do. CWWF ran parallel to the 4th World Water Forum (WWF) from March 16 – 22.
“I will ensure that all villages in my district have toilets in the next few years,” she says simply. The lack of sanitation is an important issue in many parts of Nepal, as indeed across the developing world. The children in her school in the Dang district of Nepal have formed clubs, under a project of the UN Fund for Children (Unicef), to promote hygiene in schools and neighbouring village communities.
Shanta’s school has four such clubs. They work with the village communities on sanitation and water, the focus being on constructing latrines. There was a lot of resistance initially, especially from grown-ups. But that has faded away now as they have seen the benefits of building and using toilets. Also, children have been persistent.
This was the substance of the presentation that she and fellow country-boy Suresh Baral made at the CWWF. They spoke about how their project began in 2005 as a means to teach school children about the importance of hygiene. It has since branched out into the community.
Suresh is from Pokhra, better known for its scenic beauty and hiking trails. His school has one sanitation club with 40 members, half boys and half girls. The participation of girls is significant. They normally do not get involved in ‘extra-curricular’ activities, but have found projects such as these to be emancipating.
Shanta and Suresh were two of 112 children from 30 countries who attended CWWF to share their experiences on local actions. Their presentations spanned four days. Each was critiqued on five counts and then rated. The five best, from Laos, Kenya, Japan, Mexico and USA, were given a chance to speak at a special session at the WWF.
Mekhriniso Saidiso, 15, from Tajikistan said girls had taken the lead in her school to promote hygiene. The project gave them a chance to show they were as good as, if not better, than the boys. Most of the children involved in the sanitation project of her school were girls; this had also encouraged girls to attend school.
The pretty blonde, who had traveled 25 hours by a special chartered plane carrying other participants from Asia, said, “My project is a new way for girls to demonstrate their leadership skills and combat discrimination.”
In 2005, Unicef launched the hygiene projects, similar to the one in Nepal, in 400 schools in the country. Its activities involve building latrines and spreading awareness about hygiene and sanitation in schools. From the schools, the campaigns have spread to local communities. Mekhriniso is very active, almost fanatical, about her project, that focuses on water and hygiene.
Attending CWWF had widened the worldview of tomorrow’s leaders. For instance, Shanta and Suresh heard about other issues, such as the trafficking of Nepali women to India, at CWWF. They planned to include this, and other social problems, in their future campaigns.
Mekhriniso also said CWWF was an excellent place to share experiences. “I have learnt a lot about garbage management in other countries. There are innovative ways to dispose off solid waste such as by making fertilizer.”
Gathered in a large auditorium in the Mexican Olympic Committee’s facilities, the children lived, presented and played together for a week. Each country group, or individual, was chaperoned by an adult. The auditorium’s walls were plastered with posters painted by the children. It was a spontaneous expression of their world view, and it wasn’t flattering.
In their Call for Action, at the WWF, they wanted to be involved in local actions to overcome the critical global challenge on water and environment. They did not want to be left out of future decision-making processes, and wanted to know how their proposals would form part of WWF’s follow-up process. The children said adults forced them, especially in developing countries, to fetch water at the expense of education.
In addition to the presentations, the CWWF included a Global Water Education Village. This displayed education and training material and was coordinated Project WET International, one of the organisers. The other organizers were the Instituto Mexicano de Technologia del Agua, Unicef and the Japan Water Forum.
The objective of the World Water Forums is to provide a meeting place for all stakeholders working on water. The organizer, the World Water Council, felt “the voice of children must be heard at these events. Children should not be treated as mere spectators but rather, as active participants. Children have a view of the world that differs from that of the adults. Children will inherit the World and its resources.” However, the children got to participate at WWF in just two sessions, out of over 300.
This rather insignificant participation detracted from the importance of CWWF as a platform for children. In the end, CWWF’s output was limited to a 10-minute statement by 10 children at the ministerial conference, towards the end of WWF. That, and the couple of sessions, was the peep that the adults had into the world of children. And I wonder if they paid any attention at all.
View from First Nation, Canada
Sage Kent from Winnipeg, Canada, is from a native Indian tribe called First Nation.
“Water dams and water ways are impeding the natural flow of water. The land is flat and when the water floods, it kills trees and animals. People die because they do not get anything to eat. It is hard to understand why this has happened. My people suffer from water pollution and recurrent floods.”
She was at CWWF with a simple message to grown-ups.
“If corporations spare just 10 cents per dollar, all the children in the world can have clean water to drink.”
Sage’s parents raised money so their daughter could attend CWWF and give her message. Sage, at 9, was the youngest participant.
Sage’s mother Lee Anne Kent, felt CWWF had a very structured programme. This did not let children spontaneously express themselves. However, she felt it could be a powerful voice, given half a chance.