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Today is International Youth Day, the day the world gathers to address youth issues and plan for a future of responsible consumption, free of poverty. Meet Neha Siddiqui, a member of Plan India's Youth Advisory Panel, dedicated change maker and youth advocate extraordinaire. This is her story, in her own words.
I remember it like it was yesterday - the day I got to know of Plan India. I was nine years old and valiantly attempting to finish my homework when my sister came in and began telling me about her day. We lived in Delhi, in a modest home with our parents who did what they could to provide for us.
I have an older sister who often participated in activities organised in our locality. She had a meeting to go to, she said while brushing her hair, as a member of a 'Bal Panchayat' (a local council led by children).
While I'd heard her mention this before, it caught my attention this time. Could be because she was talking about girls' rights and the immense pressure young girls' even those in the fourth grade like me felt in their homes and outside. She described an inspiring and encouraging team with backpacks, kindly smiles and a vast knowledge of seemingly everything (!), who helped them run their Panchayat and gently facilitated their discussions and exploration of the world around them.
I decided to go see this for myself. I left home with my sister that day and came back an entirely different person. That fateful meeting changed the course of my life.
It was the first time I'd been exposed to anything of this kind. That there were people out there, so close to my own age, having meaningful conversations and trying to make a difference really opened my mind. And none of this was preachy. The meeting was fun and exciting and completely different from what we did at school.
I decided that I'd like to learn more and shortly joined the 'Bal Sabha' (children's assembly) and then the Bal Panchayat, which was for older children. We met every week to learn about children's rights and responsibilities. I found these topics fascinating as they resonated with me deeply. Growing up in a small part of Delhi, I'd seen first-hand, the kind of treatment young children and especially girls endure.
I became a card carrying member of a group called "Youth for Social Change". We organised awareness campaigns, took out rallies, staged street plays, met with school representatives, parents and other children. We became the face of change in our neighbourhood. People certainly responded to us with interest, amusement or scorn but they soon learned that we were all business and that we were determined to make change happen for children's rights and girls" education.
Because of us, families that did not allow their daughters to leave home began to send them to the Bal Sabha and also enrolled them in nearby government schools. This was a great victory for us and still remains one of my biggest achievements.
With time, I grew more and more involved with programmes including 'Learn Without Fear', a campaign in which we audited schools in Delhi and sensitised teachers and school management to end corporal punishment. Because of our work, we even got to meet the incredible Mr Anil Kapoor!
Another favourite of mine was "Because I am a Girl" (BIAAG), a global movement to help girls achieve equal rights, especially that to an education. As part of BIAAG, we worked in several communities and schools, spreading awareness on why educating girls is critical for our future as a nation. What I liked most about our work was that the boys too were active participants and ambassadors for the rights of girls. They embodied the virtues of the BIAAG movement and set an example just as we did, in their families and neighbourhoods.
This was ten years ago. I'm now 20 years old and have recently begun pursuing a Master's degree in Human Rights and Duties Education at the acclaimed Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi. I plan to dedicate my life to social change and this has everything to do with the exposure I had growing up.
In recent years, I was elected to be part of both the state and national level Plan India Youth Advisory Panels (YAP). The YAPs provide the organisation with a youth perspective, strive for justice and ensure that the voices of young people inform their work to advance child rights and development.
The process was democratic, intensive and challenged each of us to step up and make a case for all we had learned over the years. When I was elected Secretary of the National Youth Advisory Panel, I could barely believe it. It emboldened me to apply for a seat in Plan International's Global Youth Advisory Panel (GYAP)- a body of extremely talented youth representing 70 countries worldwide.
I remember so vividly, how the internet failed just as my Skype interview began; how Ms Chandni and Mr Ilango from the India office helped me stay calm, gather my courage and made prompt arrangements for a telephone call to be made instead. The call lasted 1.5 hours. The week after seemed like an eternity.
Then I received the email - I was selected to represent India in the GYAP! I called them both right after and we celebrated with such glee and excitement.
Now, when I attend our monthly Skype meetings, participate in regional workshops and speak at international conferences with packed auditoriums of development professionals and state leaders, I feel tremendous pride when I'm referred to as the "India representative". I'm honoured to represent my country and to be part of something so big and so meaningful.
I've spent my childhood and all of my teenage years learning about gender justice, equality and human rights and in doing so, have gained great confidence and an ability to lead. I went from being a quiet, reserved little girl to one who made her opinions known and fought for the right of other girls to do so too.
More than most people our age, those of us in the YAP are acutely aware of our responsibilities towards society. Well after we are independent, responsible adults, we intend to continue to change the world for the better.
Each and every one of us lives by Mahatma Gandhi's famed motto, "Be the change you want to see in the world."