The Field Office of UNICEF in Maharashtra marked the organisation’s 70th anniversary by reflecting on achievements made for children over the years and pondering over the last mile issues. The programme was organised in collaboration with the Confederation of Indian Industry on Monday, 12 December 2016 at the Blue Star India conference room in Mumbai.
Honourable Justice Mr. V.M Kanade, the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court was the chief guest. Other guests included Mr. Yoshiko Ito, the Consul General of Japan, Mr. Leonard Reil, the Consul for Canada, Ms. Farida Lambay, the founder trustee of Pratham, and Ms. Medhavinee Namjoshi, the Chief Project Coordinator, Vacha Trust. But the day belonged to two adolescents: Amisha Kawde from Thane, one of 36,000 girls who participated in the Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) programme and broke the silence around this taboo subject; and Janka Shinde from Latur who was empowered by the Building Bright Futures (Deepshikha) programme to stop her own marriage and that of her sisters before they turned 18.
The event began with a welcome address by Ms. Rajeshwari Chandrasekar, the Chief of Field Office, UNICEF Maharashtra. She said, “Maurice Patte, a former director of UNICEF had once said, the bigger we make the family of UNICEF friends, the better. Partnerships have been fundamental to our work - be it with AMUL for the White Revolution in the 1950s, the polio and tetanus campaigns, or with the state government to set up India’s first-ever Nutrition Mission in Maharashtra,” she said.
In his keynote address, Justice Mr. V.M. Kanade spoke of the role Public Interest Litigations have played in drawing attention to issues affecting children. “PILs are a powerful tool in the hands of the marginalised and weaker sections to raise concerns and bring about social change. Some of the PILs have been about child malnutrition and the condition of children in shelter homes.” He urged stakeholders including corporate houses to come forward to help UNICEF secure children’s rights.
Japanese Consul General Ito recalled, “As an infant, I too had been a beneficiary of a UNICEF project that provided milk powder to infants in Japan. This gave me the gift of health and a good start in life” Consul Reil of Canada added, “Opportunities and access to important resources make all the difference when it comes to outcomes.”
Mr. Reil’s statement perhaps resonated most with Ms. Kadam, a supervisor from Aurangabad who pioneered the idea of ISO-certified Anganwadi centres in Maharashtra. “I was dismayed by the state of Anganwadi centres when I first took charge. How can our children, the citizens of tomorrow, be nurtured and groomed in these resource-poor dilapidated structures? Through persuasion I raised up to Rs 1 lakh to create ISO Anganwadis through crowd-funding. This has had a positive impact on health indicators for mothers and children.”
Testifying to another intervention that has saved lives of newborns was Ms. Sangeeta Sarode, a mother from Jalna. “Both my daughters were severely malnourished at birth. Had it not been for the Special Newborn Care Unit at Jalna district hospital which are accessible to poor families like mine, my girls would not be alive and healthy today.”
Ms. Sandhya Nagarkar, a Child Development Project Officer hailed the Early Childhood Care and Education policy that UNICEF has helped formulate. “Training programmes on pre-school education held by UNICEF have led to an attitudinal change in the system. The resulting professionalism showed by Anganwadi Workers has made Anganwadis truly child-centric and inspired communities.”
Ms. Lambay, an eminent child rights activist also spoke on the occasion about the need to prioritise education. “The enrolment of girls in schools drops after Standard 8 due to the safety concerns of parents and the lack of access to schools. I strongly urge the government to extend the Right to Education Act and make education mandatory for all children up to Standard 10 or 12. We also need to focus on making our schools more child-friendly to ensure greater retention.”
The next speaker Ms. Namjoshi, emphatically called for greater investments in adolescent boys and girls “Adolescent programming must go beyond reproductive health of girls to provide sexuality education, proper toilets and playgrounds for boys and girls.”
Ms. Namjoshi also spoke about how young girls still become social untouchables during their menstrual periods, something that Dr. Tarulata Dhanke, a block health officer from Thane district could relate to. “In the silence surrounding this subject superstitions get enforced and girls suffer in the long run. Our MHM programme has been able to convey critical messages to adolescent girls in 912 schools through a network of 400 trainers in just 6 months! Girls who used to look down shyly earlier when asked about periods today speak boldly about their experiences.”