Meet Sakthi, a 12 year old boy hailing from the Thiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu who has been nominated for the International Peace Prize for Children 2017, earlier won by none other than the Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai. He has been selected from a list of 169 children and is now an inspiration for millions of children in our country as well as globally. He has succeeded in convincing the tribal families in his community to send their children to school, an initiative which has earned him international acclaim.
The story of Sakthi is the perfect example of where there is a will, there is a way. He was born in a family with five siblings and abject poverty made it difficult for his family to arrange for a four-square meal. Belonging to the Narikuravar community, his family used to sell beaded ornaments, balloons and toy cars which could do nothing from recovering them from poverty. With minimal income, the family was forced to sleep in temples or under the trees without a proper place to stay. Moreover, the harsh treatment meted out by the Government school to the children of the Narikuravar community forced Sakthi to drop out from school at the age of eight. He had no other option than to beg or sell bead ornaments.
On one fine day, the NGO Hand in Hand approached Sakthi’s community urging the family members to send their children for a training session conducted by the Government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan at the Residential Special Training Centre. The aim of the program is to take in the school dropouts into conventional education. Luckily, Sakthi’s family readily agreed to send their son for the training program. At the training centre, Sakthi showed a positive attitude towards learning and slowly he became the ambassador of education, speaking about importance of education and schooling to the people of his own community and convincing the parents to send their children to school. Time again he would urge his community people to give up consuming liquor, domestic abuse and child marriage and embrace a life of education and hygiene. Sakthi says, ““Every time I used to visit my native place, I would narrate stories about the new environment to my friends. I would ask them to narrate the changes that they see in me and some would reply like, ‘you look clean and well-dressed’. Most of my friends did not understand the need for hygiene and cleanliness. When I used to coerce them to join the RSTC, they would rebel and ask me to come back to selling fancy wares on the streets as they believed that studies and school are of no use and tact and trade is all that is required to eke out a living.” He decided to approach the parents, ““I would make a point to personally meet the elders and stress on the need to evolve with the world and that like me, their children would not want to burn their heels in the hot sun and spend their nights on the pavements in future.”
His words bore fruit as people from his community started sending their children to school. He says that whenever he returns to his village, he narrates all what happens in school and how his life has taken a positive turn after joining the training program. “When I go looking so decent during Diwali or Pongal, other parents see me and ask where I am from. I tell them I eat well, sleep well, and study well. I tell them that if we study well then we don’t have to slog it out in the fields. That convinces other parents, and they want their children to join the school as well.”
Today there are more than 25 children from the Narikuravar community who have joined school and got a new lease of life. Sakthi is now the inspiration of the families in his communities and want their children to follow his path. Sakthi says he wants convince to more children to join school, not only from his community but also from the outside. He believes that everyone should get equal opportunity in education. He has a keenness for computer and wants to become a software engineer once when he grows up. Kalpana Shankar, who is the co-founder of the NGO says, “From wearing tattered clothes and looking dirty and unkempt, Sakthi went on to become a stickler for cleanliness and practised what he was taught even at home.” “Sakthi not only transformed himself but also brought a great change in his community. That is why we decided to nominate him for the award. He is the youngest amongst all 169 nominees for the award”, added Kalpana. Sakthi is working as a catalyst of education, inspiring and pulling more and more children to embrace education and realize their dream of creating a wonderful life and prosperous future. “If he is able to bring 25 children, then each of these 25 children will be able to bring another 25-30 children, that is his dream”, says Deepa Lakshmi, Assistant General Manager- Communications of the NGO Hand in Hand.
When asked about what he wants to say to the world, his words were, ““Kalvi ku madham, mozhi thevai illai, karpavar ku manam irundha podhum (You don’t need to conform to a religion or speak a particular tongue to be educated, interest and curiosity to learn is enough to acquire knowledge)”.