Krishna lives in the slums of Anand Nagar, in a small house with her mum, dad and younger brother. Her grandparents, uncles, aunties and cousins live next door or within close vicinity. The community in which she lives in is plagued by poverty. Like many other girls in her community, she must conform to the traditional role of the girl child –to cook, clean and carry out other household duties. Work comes first, then education; bringing money into the house is top most priority. The women and girls within her family and extended family are not granted the right to voice their opinion or do as they please; their lives are mapped out for them by their fathers, uncles and grandfathers and they have no choice but to obey. Krishna’s mother is disabled, thus placing even more responsibility on her shoulders to attend to household chores. Krishna’s situation is quite common in India. What makes Krishna unique, however, is her strength, courage and willpower to change the current situation.

Krishna’s involvement with Shaishav began when she was just 11 years of age. Despite her father and dada (dad’s eldest brother) strictly forbidding her from attending the Bal Mela, held by Shaishav, Krishna went along anyway. This is part and parcel of Krishna’s character stubborn and persistent; if she wants to do something there is no stopping her.

After her second session at the Bal Mela, Krishna told a staff member that her parents did not know she was there, and if they found out, they would prevent her from coming again. A member of the Shaishav team rang her parents to inform them where Krishna was and visited her home to speak with her parents. Krishna was terrified of the consequences she would now face for lying to her parents and deceiving them. However, when a member of Shaishav spent some time with her parents, they helped them to understand Shaishav’s work and encouraged them to allow Krishna to participate.

After Krishna’s initial battle with her father and dada to participate in Shaishav activities, she was granted permission to attend the Balgar in her community every evening. By attending Balgar Krishna was given the chance to learn and play in an enjoyable environment. She was provided with support, which she was not getting at home; she was encouraged to pursue her studies, again which was not promoted at home. Moreover it provided a place where she felt content and enjoyed the pleasures of childhood, which was previously alien to her. Krishna would attend the Balgar daily.

With the formation of Balsena, Krishna became a founder member and an important asset of this innovative movement. Krishna has grown from strength to strength over the past 5 years, since the establishment of Balsena. She has attended countless training sessions including leadership, problem solving and communication training, as well as numerous training sessions on child rights. She became a founder member of Kishori and an active participant in Shaishav’s other programmes too. With the support of Shaishav and due to her own active participation, Krishna has acquired a sound understanding of issues concerning child rights.

In just 5 years her knowledge surrounding child rights issues has developed considerably and she has the passion and ability to spread the message. Thus she has been chosen to train other children, to spread the message in her community, as well as to visit local communities and lead sessions on child right topics. She is also regularly voted by her peers and Shaishav staff to represent Balsena and Shaishav at local and national level. It is due to her commitment and drive that she has had an abundance of opportunities. Consequently, she has grown into a mature and assertive young lady. She is aware of her own strengths and weaknesses; She has a dream which she is determined to fulfill; She is sensitive and empathetic towards the needs of children and has proven her ability to lead and interact with both children and adults at all levels, whether it be private or municipal children, foreign children or teachers, Mayors or other senior figures. She presents her ideas and beliefs with conviction and is able to respond to challenges which are presented before her.

An example of her strength and ability to organize, manage and lead is her participation in circle point. Circle point is a Balsena initiative set up to promote harmony in areas of communal tension. Krishna leads the sessions every evening. She visits 6 different locations a week, with an average of 35 children attending each session. Despite the distance she must travel Krishna never misses any sessions. She is fully committed and dedicated to Shaishav and Balsena and recognizes the importance of such programmes. She explains that she has benefited so much from the support Shaishav have provided her that she now wants to support other children so that they can have the same chance to grow in a child friendly environment. The children are very fond of Krishna; they treat her like a friend, they respect her, and their regular attendance at circle point affirms her strength as a leader. Krishna says that attending circle point is the best part of her day; she enjoys interacting with children and can empathise with the children as she understands their struggle more than anyone.

It is as a result of Krishna’s initial stubbornness and continued persistence that she has succeeded as one of Shaishav’s champions. She is well-known and well respected among her peers, within Shaishav and her community. She was elected as president of Balsena last year, she participated in two major events held in Mumbai and Delhi and was also voted by her peers to attend the Girl’s International Summit in the US, where she not only represented Shaishav and Balsena, but was one of just 5 girls chosen to represent India. In addition, she has met with leading figures in the community to pressurize them into supporting child rights cause. This has heightened her awareness of child rights issues locally, nationally and internationally. It has provided her with a platform to spread Balsena’s concept and message around the globe and to develop her personal skills too. She has thus become a valuable member of Balsena and Shaishav as well as an asset to the country. She is the CHANGEMAKER in society.

Krishna explained that at first she was scared to get up on stage, to speak in front of large groups, and was worried about how she would be received. No longer does she have the same doubts. She is determined to fight for child rights; with her solid understanding and knowledge surrounding these issues, as well as the skills, which she has developed through training, Krishna has become confident in her ability to present. Balsena has provided her with a platform to exercise her rights and perform, thus she has become an incredible speaker.

Despite her parents and dada’s initial doubts about allowing Krishna to extend her participation in Balsena to events outside of Bhavnagar, they are proud of her achievements. She is renowned in her community and a role model for other girls. This community, which only 15 years ago, wouldn’t allow a girl to leave the area alone, let alone Bhavnagar or the country, a community which did not respect the rights of children and particularly girls, a community which was exploitative of children and did not value education, has been transformed as a result of the Balsena movement. It took Krishna’s strength and courage to do this; she has played a major role in the transformation of her community.

Unfortunately Krishna’s struggle continues. She failed in two subjects in 10th standard and must now re-sit these exams, if she wants to pursue her dreams. This was a major set back for Krishna and she was devastated when she found out. She went to Shaishav for support and advice and was encouraged to pursue her studies and retake the two exams. She has been encouraged to go to tuition classes as well but she does not want to be financially dependent on her family or dada and has thus decided to revise independently for the exam. For the same reason, Krishna chose to go to municipal school instead of private school. This has undoubtedly impacted on her results. I asked Krishna why she does not want to take money off her dada (who is more than happy to provide her with the funds), she responded: “If I am financially dependent on someone, they can tell me what to do”. If she relies on her dada’s money, he can dictate her life – what she does, where she goes, when she gets married etc. Independence is therefore vital for Krishna, if she wants to achieve her dreams. Her family is putting pressure on her to get married but she refuses. She knows her rights; her family cannot force her to get married and must respect Krishna’s wishes.

Despite Krishna’s involvement in Balsena and her thorough understanding of child rights issues, she continues to face discrimination in her own home. Indeed her parents are giving her the freedom to attend Balsena programmes and volunteer with Shaishav. Yet the established conventional role of men and women/girl and boy remains and thus Krishna, unlike her younger brother, continues to be burdened with pressure to quickly start work, earn money and even get married. Krishna’s strength is ensuring that this does not happen but inequality lingers and continues to hinder progress.

Krishna’s story is truly inspirational. She has touched so many lives. She wants to help other children, so that they do not suffer in silence, so they can enjoy their childhood and so that they value the importance of education. She believes that the strength of Balsena is key to changing the situation for children in India.