Akash Tomar, 17, starts his day by making up his bed and tidying his room. He then helps his younger sister with the household chores like sweeping the floor and cutting vegetables in the kitchen. It's a far cry from earlier days, when no sooner did he rise in the morning than he was off to play cricket with his friends. "If I don't help around the house, a majority of the burden will fall on my sister and she won't have time to attend school," he says practically.

So what brought about this dramatic change in the young man's life? It all happened about five years back, when a small group of people decided to tap into the idealism of youth and organise them into children's forums, or Bal Sangathans, at the village level to identify priorities locally and then work through their children's groups to mobilise the community to address them. In company with other young boys and girls in his village, Dhood, situated about 50 km away from Dehradun, Akash has secured the return of several girls to school, after they were forced to drop out by their parents. He also helped in constructing a toilet in the local school. And this is just the beginning.

Changing mindset

Children across the Indian mountain state of Uttarakhand are changing their communities, transforming long-established mindsets and shaking up the very nature of governance. Under the aegis of Mountain Children's Foundation (MCF), a Dehradun-based NGO, a network of some 15,000 young people working with organisations across 600 villages are tapping the power of collective action to get teachers to attend school and parents to allow children, in particular girls, to study. The call for action hasn't stopped here. They have got toilets built in homes, dustbins installed for waste disposal while age-old attitudes towards gender, nutrition and hygiene are changing across villages.

The MCF / CRY Child Participation campaign in 16 villages of Vikas Nagar block in Dehradun district has completed its fifth year and children's voices are now being heard and their opinions seriously considered.

“Over the years, we have seen a gradual increase in the number of women taking interest and attending the children's activities. But this year has been special as an increasing number of men as well as the elected members of the village have also been participating," states Aditi Kaur, MCF president.

The children in the programme have shown how much they can do to improve their village and change people's thinking and actions. They have surprised both themselves and their community by standing up for what they feel is right, and following through with it, she observes. "Of course, the facilitator still plays a very important role in supporting the children in planning and implementing their activities, but the children are truly leading the way," she adds.

According to Akash, one of their biggest successes has been to prevent a child marriage ~ that of a young 12-year-old girl in their village. "Anita’s father and elder brother felt tied down by caring for her and wanted to marry her off so they could work outside the village. In addition, the other children at school were teasing her about her coming marriage. When our bal sangathan heard of her plight, we spoke to her father telling him it was against the law to get her married at such a young age and that he could go to jail," he recalls. "After much counseling, her father agreed to send her back to school and even bought her books and a uniform. The teachers have been made aware of her predicament and we check up on her if she misses even a day at school."

Empowering girls

According to Aditi Kaur, gender balance is a central tenet of the MCF's work. During large workshops, participants are selected with a view to maintaining a 50-50 gender balance. "But during the village-level meetings of the bal sangathans, our team found that the girls were not able to attend the meetings as they had to do 'work' at home."

In order to tackle this challenge, the bal sangathans were divided into two groups (girls and boys) and they listed the work they did. The girls' list was long. Then the group discussed how the boys could help their sisters. They wrote down the ideas and suggestions of the children and follow-up meetings were held to see if and where changes had taken place. The results were enlightening and positive. In Dhore Ki Dandi village, young Ankit began helping his sister Anjali in sweeping and mopping while another lad, Abhishek, assisted his sister Abhiva in lighting the fire in the morning and tidying the house. Jashoda Devi of the same village told a facilitator that she was pleasantly surprised at how her son Satyapal was helping her daughter Manju in housework.

Yogesh,14, of Devthala village, 50 km away from Dehradun, has learnt more from the children's forum than from his classes in school. "I have learnt about the importance of hygiene and sanitation and have installed a garbage bin in my house so we do not litter our surroundings." His awareness about gender equality and girls' rights has also been a revelation. "I was used to seeing my sister doing the chores around the house and it never bothered me. But now I help her by washing the dishes and sweeping the floor. The other day, I was in a hurry to join my friends outdoors and asked her to wash my clothes. My mother immediately scolded me by saying did I not have hands that I needed her to do my washing!" Yogesh relates this incident with a bashful laugh.

Social change

The children's groups have matured noticeably since the programme began in 2011 and the adults have begun to understand the powerful role that youth can play in being agents of change within their communities. The bal sangathans made their concerns heard in the 2014 Panchayat elections and the newly- elected leaders took time to meet the children, showing that they are now considered valid stakeholders in the community. Neelam Kumari, 19, also of Devthala village, is actively involved in meeting village leaders and seniors and discussing with them their efforts towards promoting better health practices. "Our initiatives have resulted in a visible change in people's attitudes and behaviours, including building and using toilets and garbage receptacles"” she maintains.

The forum’s advocacy on the importance of birth registration culminated in more than 1,200 delayed birth certificates being issued, claims Anjali Tomar, 18, of Pashta village, about 70 km from Dehradun. "Most of us did not have birth certificates, so we went to Vikasnagar tehsil and got affidavits made." Anjali has come a long way from the retiring adolescent she was at the start of the programme. "My father did not want me to attend the bal sangathans, but he gave in when he saw that other parents were allowing their daughters to attend," she reveals. "Today, he is one of the regular adults at the meetings and is a staunch supporter of girls' right to education."

Similarly, Neelam's father was against higher education for girls, but he compromised by saying she could complete high school and then stay at home to help her mother with domestic chores till she got married. "He soon changed his tune after the discussions at the youth meetings and today I'm studying science (BSc) at the local college," she states. The bal sangathans in each of the 16 villages meet once a month to discuss child rights, child participation, nutrition, sanitation and, hygiene. With over 838 active members, the villages now have 258 new toilets and thousands of trees, planted by the children, with many of the seedlings having been procured from local government channels. The boys and girls, working side-by-side, have fearlessly taken on thorny challenges like child marriages and gender and caste discrimination.

Anjali remembers when several children at the anganwadi (pre-school children's centre) were not permitted to eat food prepared there as the cook belonged to a Scheduled Caste community. "It was difficult, but through meetings and discussions we were able to make a small dent in peoples' mindsets with regard to caste. Now some of the children, who earlier refused to eat, have started eating the food prepared there along with their friends."

"The years of interacting with these children have taught an important lesson ~ that working with children delivers results because people listen to and are motivated by their children in a way that cannot be touched by any outsider," observes Kaur. "Children are both a catalyst for change and a force that brings people together. And so, we at the MCF have learnt to work through a broad-based cooperative approach that makes the children and their community the owners and primary stake-holders of development efforts."

Through hundreds of workshops on issues ranging from right to quality education, gender equality and understanding birth registration as a right, MCF has brought children together to build their leadership and communication skills for the well-being of their communities, she stresses.

In the words of young Saloni Kumar of Devthala village, "Before this programme started, I was too scared to open my mouth and always stayed in the background. Girls were not encouraged to speak out in my family. But today, I am talking effortlessly with you. This is the confidence that the bal sangathan gave me and no one can take that away from me." The valiant 14-year-old has great plans for her future. "Nothing should hold girls back. I want to be an army officer."

The writer is a freelance journalist.