“Growth is not just about moving ahead in classes, it’s also about how you challenge yourself from within. I was bullied by my friends for being too tall and even considered suicide.Today, I am a resource person and representative for India at the Children as Actors for Transforming Society.”
Pooja Yadav is 15 years old and lives in the slums of Bhagat Singh Nagar, Goregaon. Typical to Mumbai, while there’s a multi-storeyed (AC classrooms only) International School opposite the entrance of her lane, girls in Pooja’s community struggle to study beyond standard 8. Pooja lives in a 1 room kitchen house with her parents, Sheila Devi and Bholanath Yadav and her three siblings, Sandeep, Rakhi and Preeti. Her father met with a grievous accident a few years back, hence her brother Sandeep is the only earning member of the family. Often aided by her teachers, Pooja studies in a Sarvodaya Girls’ School. In the midst of struggling to make ends meet, lies a coming of age story of young Pooja, whose resolve to overcome the silence that surrounds bullying has sent her places.
“I was the tallest in my class, and as you know, your peers sometimes simply need a reason to label you,” Pooja shares. “My close friends also started calling me unkind names; I avoided going to school, it became a nightmare for me.” She shares about having suicidal thoughts as a teenager, with no one to share her thoughts or everyday struggles with.
Pratyek, an organization working for promoting child rights in Goregaon, approached Pooja’s community and many students signed up for becoming a member of the Child Parliament. “I had no confidence, so when didis asked me to join in, I naturally refused,” she says. “However, the didis expressed confidence in my abilities and asked me to give it a chance.” Once she signed up for the Child Parliament, she was introduced to child rights as her rights. Through Icebreakers, interactive games and weekly meetings, Pooja slowly started stepping out of her depression and interacting with other children in her community. Together, they started taking out rallies about child rights with their parents and community members.
“I couldn’t even talk to my friends, here I was supposed to talk to adults,” Pooja exclaims. She started conducting Parents’ meetings in her community with her didi. When she could successfully conduct an Icebreaker, she was elated. In a congested slum, she wanted to work on the right to play. She broke her own silence when she realized that children have the right to speak and demand their own rights. It became easier to work with her peers for a cleaner neighbourhood, girls’ rights to study and educate themselves.
Seeing her exemplary work, the team at Pratyek nominated her to become an advocate for the NineIsMine Campaign, a campaign to promote 9% of budgetary allowance of the State of Maharashtra for children’s welfare. “You have to remember, I was a painfully shy child, struggling with depression. The didi encouraged me to go to Delhi, to attend an international event called CATS (Children as Actors for Transforming Society), where adults and children work together for securing Children’s Rights and Protection.”
For the first time in her family’s history, Pooja traveled by an A/C train and on her way back, she was in a plane. “No one in my family has ever been in an Metro .A/C train, let alone on a flight. I was terrified.” Full of adventurous tales, she gave her advocacy speech calling for attention to the rights of children. She was a part of a Core Team, which organized the platform for an intersectional dialogue. After organizing a flash mob, speech and meetings in various communities in Delhi, she used to facilitate sessions with children and adults. “I had come such a long way, from someone who couldn’t even stand up for herself, I’d come a long way to becoming someone who could conduct public sessions for my rights.”
Change is not always about fighting external fights. For Pooja, it was about fighting harsh words that had been imprinted on her. Awareness about mental health, overcoming her fears and fighting for her rights at an international forum is a long journey, full of internal milestones that Pooja has achieved.
Written by : Rucha Satoor