The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.
By UNICEF Office, Maharashtra
Gone are the days when children’s voices didn’t matter. In the smaller towns and villages of Maharashtra, youth leaders and their voices are on the rise. They are not just being heard but also respected—particularly in the current COVID-19 pandemic.
One such story is of Sushant Venjane, a 14-year-old Up Sarpanch of the Bal Panchayat in Anandwadi, Latur district, Maharashtra. He’s running a full-scale awareness campaign to counter fake news and bust myths around COVID-19 circulated on chat apps.
The COVID crisis isn’t the first time that Sushant took up a leader’s role. He’s consistently worked in his village along with the other members of the Bal Panchayat to make the Gram Panchayat plastic-free. He also championed the installation of an RO plant to ensure clean water supply in all the homes. Not only that, he spearheaded the reopening of the previously defunct village library, ensuring it was restocked with new books!
His contributions and initiatives in the village as a Bal Sarpanch are well known and appreciated. This has ensured his opinions and views are taken seriously by children and adults alike. And it is this influence that he holds over the people in his village that he tapped into to create awareness on COVID-19.
Sushant’s father owns a grocery shop in the village. Helping him out there allowed Sushant to interact with children and their parents who frequented the shop. He was able to observe the challenges to hygiene maintenance, mainly when he would go to collect pending bills from people.
Through this, he identified households where preventive measures weren’t taken seriously. And the biggest challenge he saw was the spread of fake news and misinformation through WhatsApp forwards. This was counterproductive to the Gram Panchayat’s initiatives to ensure safety, hygiene and well-being of all. Residents had begun to believe that walking by the houses where persons were quarantined would infect them—leading to a lot of discrimination and stigma. This was also the case with migrant workers returning to the village.
Understanding that the issue was urgent and necessary to solve, Sushant began to work on countering misinformation with the right information. He spoke to the families coming to his father’s shop about the importance of using a mask or cloth to cover their faces, and what are the dos and don’ts of physical distancing in public spaces. While in the shop, he took precautions to reduce contact and raised fences to ensure physical distancing rules were followed.
When he went out, Sushant would talk to people who were still not following the rules about hand hygiene and avoiding touching one’s face unnecessarily. Sometimes, he also takes out time to teach children the right way of washing their hands and encourages them to do so frequently.
By and by, Sushant also began talking to his community members about how COVID-19 actually spreads, and why discriminating against migrant workers based on the wrong information is harmful. The best bit? He started these practices with himself and his family.
Today, his initiative is lending a critical helping hand to the Gram Panchayat, whose efforts to counter misinformation have been greatly boosted by the 14-year-old’s dedicated efforts to create more awareness.
Sushant is one of the many children from the Child-Friendly Panchayats initiative implemented and promoted by UNICEF India. The initiative is influencing and shaping the lives of children and creating young leaders in partnership with the Rural Development Department of Maharashtra. Know a COVID hero like Sushant? Share their story with #ReimagineTogether on YKA today!