Children living in India's slums have found a new voice - and their message is out on film. With the help of a non-profit organization, India's disadvantaged children are using filmmaking to bring about social change.
On a quiet summer afternoon in New Delhi, India, 17-year-old Sonu is watching films with her friends. The topics range from HIV AIDS, to bonded labor, to life in slums of New Delhi. Not the usual choice of subjects for regular teenagers. But Sonu and her friends are no regular teenagers.
They are filmmakers and human rights campaigners. They come from disadvantaged communities all over India. Today they are screening 36 films made by their peers to select a few for a special film festival. Through an initiative called "Children have something to say", Plan International, a non-profit organization, is giving children like Sonu a voice. Growing up in slums across India, these children choose subjects for their films that reflect their own lives.
Shonu Chandra taught them filmmaking and says he is in awe of their fearless approach to the film medium and their subjects.
Shonu says, "Children have this incredible capacity, the potential to grasp things. Technology is the last of the limiting factors for them, which as adults we start apprehending -- 'Oh this is technical, can we do it or not' -- but children approach technology without any fear and they are very good at grasping it."
Once the films are made, Plan International organizes screenings for the community to initiate a dialogue between the kids and elders. Children like Sonu take their social responsibilities very seriously.
"Often our politicians and other adults are busy with their own issues and are not concerned about kids. They don't know about kid's issues. Let's take schools for example. They think schools are doing OK. But in reality, in the villages schools have a lot of problems. There are shortages of teachers, even furniture and space...our politicians and office bearers won't know this unless we speak up and highlight our issues," explains Sonu.
In this film called "Addicted Innocence" the children address the issue of a growing addiction to Gutka -- a mixture of chewing tobacco and beetle nut. A community screening of this film sparked a campaign by 200 school children to stop the sale of Gutka near schools. As a result all schools and colleges in the Sehore district have been declared "Gutka free." With each success like this, these children became more determined to bring about a change in their communities.
Rakesh Kumar Sharma started off as a student. Today he himself is an instructor. For him it is not just about filmmaking, but also about affecting social change.
"I'd like to say that we have made so many films on so many issues, we should work on those issues and make sure the message reaches every part of our society. Let us not just leave it at making a film and sensitizing the public, let's make a difference," says Mr. Sharma.
Sonu and her friends were invited to visit the UK, when one of their films won the International One World Media Award for Special Achievement. They visited radio and TV stations, and interviewed politicians and policy makers in London.
The success stories from Plan India have inspired a series of similar initiatives in several other countries.
"Today, Plan runs a similar project in Kenya and Tanzania, all of west Africa now has a huge media program; in Vietnam there is a start. In Bolivia they are starting with the program. So I think 'child and media' as a tool for integrated community development will be seeing a lot of light in the coming years," says Shonu Chandra.
Meanwhile Sonu is studying media studies at a prestigious university in New Delhi. Rakesh is teaching workshops and wants to be an animator. And these young filmmakers are hard at work selecting films for the upcoming film festival. Thanks to Plan International these children from the slums of New Delhi now have a voice. And the world is their stage.