Shabnam Bano Guddushaikh is only 12 years old. But her wise words and thoughtful views belie her young age. A resident of Sathe Nagar in Mumbai suburban district, Shabnam displays a keen understanding of children’s rights and awareness of social problems affecting her neighborhood. She credits her awareness of a children’s parliament near her home.
Shabnam is a member of the parliament, run by the NGO Jeevan Dhara. The parliament, according to Shabnam, is a space to discuss “children’s issues, their future and rights.” With bright eyes and a cheery smile on her face, she promptly reels off the key rights: Right to life, right to education, right to protection and right to participation. She is also aware that the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child has 54 pivotal rights.
“When girls are born, they are killed at birth. Many girls who survive, are not allowed educational rights,” she says, making it clear that rights are not just buzzwords for her.
“I did not know all this— that children have rights,” she confides. “They don’t teach us these things in school. I realised this when I joined the children’s parliament last year. I also became aware of child marriage where girls are married before they turn 18 years old.”
Shabnam states that girls should complete their graduation, or at least study till Class XII, prior to marrying.
A student of Class VII, Shabnam knows several children admitted in school, but who would not attend, because they did not see the importance of school, according to her.
This changed after they joined the children’s parliament. “They realised it is possible to become something, only if one goes to school. They learned this in parliament. Else, the only options are to clean gutters, pick up the garbage and do taporigiri (hooliganism),” she declares, pointing out that these children have started going to school regularly. The parliament also tries to intervene by informing elders, such as parents and teachers, when they notice that some children are not attending school.
Do parents stop their children from attending school and make them help out with work instead? According to Shabnam, this happens in villages and not in urban areas like Sathe Nagar where she lives.
Shabnam is keenly aware of the environmental and social problems that affect her neighborhood. She is bothered about the lack of cleanliness, an issue that the children’s parliament has discussed. Shabnam is not afraid to ask her neighbors to not litter. “I once requested the woman next door to not litter the areas outside her house. I explained that this causes ill health. She laughed at what I said, but agreed and stop littering.”
She points to other worrying trends such as young boys taking to smoking and drinking and the prevalence of suicides among young men in her neighborhood. The children’s parliament plans to take out a rally to raise aware awareness about the ill-effects of smoking and drinking.
“People ask my mother, how does Shabnam know so much? I say that I know such things because we discuss such matters in the parliament,” she says.
Shabnam feels encouraged and appreciated by her mother, who wants her to work and achieve in life. But Shabnam isn’t overly optimistic in this regard. While she believes that girls and boys have equal rights, she feels she can only become a teacher, since girls in her community are told they can do only this. “My brother can become anything since boys are not restricted. I would like to become a doctor, but since I can only become a teacher, I will make efforts to teach,” she says. Shabnam’s admires her tuition teacher because the latter is a graduate and has also done a teaching course.
As a co-captain in the children’s parliament, Shabnam says she is no longer shy or an introvert. “I feel I am growing up and becoming confident, knowledgeable and wise,” she says.