Amal Dev M
Aaranyak: Where Child Rights Awaken Inner Strength
Parindey: Isha Sheth
Region: Dediapada, Gujarat
“I was a member of Balsena since childhood. I learned a lot from there. I understood my rights as a child, how to practically use them, and to make decisions on my own.”
- Isha Sheth
Through her project Aaranyak, Isha Sheth uses the concept of self-learning to work with students of tribal communities. It was her parents’ organisation, Shaishav, that inspired Isha to spearhead such a big project at the age of 21. Isha’s life journey from Shaishav to Aaranyak bore witness to the transformation of her worldview.
Isha is a resident of Gujarat. She spent most of her childhood at Shaishav, the organisation founded by her parents, Falgun and Parul. The organisation champions the cause of empowering children through child rights. Their work in the slums of the Bhavnagar district of Gujarat aims to help children overcome slum life challenges such as child labour, child marriage, gender discrimination, and rampant drug abuse. Balsena, an independent children's group, is one of the most important projects of Shaishav. The transformations that the Balsena community created within the children were tremendous. Balsena has played a major role in enrolling 14,000 children in schools over the past 25 years. At that time, child labour was pervasive in the slums of Bhavnagar. But over these years, it has declined by 85%, according to Shaishav’s records. Shaishav’s wealth of experience is proving vital to many NGOs working for children in Gujarat. Another important factor that differentiates Shaishav is the tools that are used to empower children. Lots of fun games and songs, as well as extensive, fun learning materials, are a boon to Shaishav’s resource centre. All the tools mentioned above are reflected in project Aaranyak, as all the experiences of Shaishav are so deeply ingrained in Isha. "Life in Balsena has taught me to pursue my dreams," Isha added.
"After going to Swaraj, I fell in love with that place. The greatest gift I got from there in two years was to learn more about myself - what my values are, what my beliefs are, and how I like to learn."
After completing her schooling, Isha was worried about her future direction when she chanced upon Swaraj University in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Swaraj University is an alternative university that promotes self-designed learning. The two years of life and study there gave birth to varied life experiences of self-realisation in Isha. She believes that Swaraj has been able to weave perspectives on things around her and strengthen her inner beliefs and values. She also gained valuable friendships at Swaraj. "There were very few people in the batch. But during my time in Swaraj as well as now, they are with me. I got friends from Swaraj whom I could call at three o'clock at night and talk to them without any trouble," Isha said.
After two years of study in Swaraj, Isha went from Udaipur to Dediapada in Gujarat to design and implement the 'Aaranyak' project. Aaranyak means ‘those who live in the forest’, a fitting name for a project which works with tribal children. Aaranyak was the result of a confluence of Isha’s self-designed learning from Swaraj and her childhood experiences in Shaishav. Aaranyak currently operates in 14 villages and eight residential schools. There are two learning centres- Vanshala operating in 3 villages out of these 14 villages. The children decide everything - what to learn, how to learn and so on. 240 children are now part of the three learning centres. Although the children did not fully understand the process of self-designed learning, Isha was able to quickly nudge them in the right direction. Facilitators in Aaranyak play a key role in this. The 12-member strong Aaranyak team is passionate about working with children. Most of them are youth from tribal areas. They make even the smallest of events extremely effective. Additionally, teenagers in residential schools are being educated about gender equality and sex education.
"When we first arrived, the children did not talk much or ask questions, but the most important change we can see now is the increase in their confidence. Now, when they have a question, they ask the facilitator and request a change in the activities that do not interest them. The children have as well grown to make decisions on what they need to learn.”
Along with self-designed learning, Aaranyak also embraces the concept of a child-friendly village. The concept of a child-friendly village is mainly aimed at forming a collective of children similar to Balsena, and raising awareness about their rights in these 14 villages. Furthermore, Aaranyak seeks to create awareness among parents, teachers and the elderly about child rights. Looking back on Aaranyak's beginning three years ago, Isha believes that many positive changes have become apparent in the children. These changes are visible when one interacts with the children.
"Whether it is mainstream education or alternative education, I've felt that children should be free, accepted and loved as they learn. A learning centre must provide space for that. And most importantly, children should enjoy the process of learning."
Isha aims to build her own learning centre in the future to enable self-designed learning. The Panchayat has given their community halls to run the learning centre with the children. She aims to build a learning centre based on the model of a semi-residential school that provides shelter for orphans and children of single parents. This is in addition to the plans of creating children's collectives and numerous child-friendly villages. Isha is able to generate deep insights into education systems at a young age due to her life experiences. The ardent support of her parents inspires her to move forward in life. Meanwhile, their worldview and beliefs are also strongly reflected in her. Isha is driven by the roots of Shaishav and the rays of hope she inherited from Swaraj.
Isha can be reached at: email@example.com
Follow them on social media: https://www.facebook.com/ShaishavChildRights/
Translated from Malayalam to English by Riya Orison