In 2002, 35 street children from different neighbourhoods in Delhi, Northern India, were invited to attend a leadership workshop run by local NGO Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action (CHETNA). Realising the power of unity, the children decided to form their own federation, Badthe Kadam (Stepping Forward). Collectively, these street and working children saw a problem; very little was known about the issues they faced.
Feeling that the media paid little attention to the good they achieved and more to negative stereotypes and criminal activity, an idea was born. They needed their own newspaper, the world’s first newspaper run entirely by street children, ‘Balaknama’ (Hindi for “voice of the children”).
Starting as a quarterly newsletter, the first issue was published in September 2003. In 2014, the move to publish in both Hindi and English was made, and the publication began releasing monthly issues.
17-year-old Shambu washes cars during the day for a living, attends school in the afternoon and devotes much of his free time and evenings to Balaknama as a reporter.
Now, with over 60 reporters between the ages of 12 and 20, they distribute more than 5,000 copies in Hindi and 3,000 in English; mostly among other street children, their parents and friends, but also selling a few at newsstands and sharing with local police and businesses to help re-shape the negative views and stereotypes they’ve been ascribed.
Seventeen-year-old Shambu washes cars during the day for a living, attends school in the afternoon and devotes much of his free time and evenings to Balaknama as a reporter; a favourite of the current editor. Speaking to Al Jazeera earlier this year, editor Chandni explains, “This newspaper is our voice to tell people, about what we go through and that even our lives matter. People usually don’t care about street children. Whether they are beaten up, raped or even disappear, it hardly creates a flutter.”
Collectively, these street and working children saw a problem; very little was known about the issues they faced.
Chandni is responsible for hosting editorial meetings, deciding which stories to pursue and guiding her team of reporters to create each issue. She works with past editors too, who advise her and help her to learn the processes for publishing and uploading content online.
The average age of a Balaknama reporter is 14. They mostly come from slums and shanties, schooled and trained by programmes such as those offered by CHETNA; and often in addition to the work they do to support their families. “We only provide training to those who want to join the paper as a reporter. The paper mainly gets by through donations. We don’t interfere in the paper’s editorial affairs. These children are articulate and know what they are writing about,” says CHETNA Director, Gupta in a comment to the Hindustan Times.
In this spirit, while the younger or less-educated children are still learning, they can volunteer as a “Batatooni” – the talkative ones; reporters who tell stories verbally for the others to transcribe for the paper.
“When children did not find space among adults, they decided to pen down their issues and glories, an attempt to change people’s perception…”
Content varies, with the selection of stories each month touching on on-going issues; tragic reports of children forced into hard labour, drugs or suffering sexual assault; the risks of disease and the areas that have witnessed spikes in assault; contrasted against inspiring commentary on the length that these children will go to look out for one another.
As an important information resource, the children of Balaknama seek to keep each other safe. “When children did not find space among adults, they decided to pen down their issues and glories, an attempt to change people’s perception and ensuring identity, dignity, and participation of street children,” reads the Balaknama website.
In the most recent issue, the Balaknama Bureau featured a lead story on the sexual assault of street children; reporters risking their safety to collect testimony from other children who often work for perpetrators that place little value on their lives. One “batatooni” produced a piece critical of local government, who despite funding a census of stray dogs in a bid to control populations for upcoming international events, still have not put in place systems to record street children; often reinforcing their status as voiceless and giving way to their on-going abuse and forced labour.
Speaking to BBC at the end of 2015, Chandni describes the pride she has in working with Balaknama, “I am very proud of editing this paper because it’s one of its kind in India. Children whose childhood have been robbed, have gone hungry, begged, been abused and forced to work, write about other children who are going through similar tribulations. It’s not only cathartic but also gives each one of us a sense of purpose. We can only become better from here.”