Small Talk With Shyamalee Roy

CHANGE leaders do great things, and often that is all we know about them. Here we want to get a different glimpse of the personalities that constitute the development space. Every month we get one leader to answer four questions, not necessarily about their work, but about themselves. This week we catch up with Shyamalee Roy, Director at Mitsuko Trust. 

More than two decades ago, when Shyamalee Roy was working at International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Delhi she met Mitsuko and her husband Daniel, from Japan, who had recently joined the office. Mitsuko was deeply affected when she came across children begging in and around road crossings.

In 2007, when Mitsuko succumbed to cancer, Daniel and Shyamalee started Mitsuko Trust to honour her memory. Mitsuko Trust focuses on making underprivileged children be aware of their rights, encourages them to express their opinions, voice their concerns and participate in decision-making by providing them an enabling environment through various activities such as theatre, art and self-defense.

SC: Why does this cause matter to you?

SR: Be it in privileged homes or in a vulnerable environment, often children don’t have a voice at all. They are kept completely out of the decision-making process, even when it affects their lives. That has been a part of our culture – we don’t listen to children, we tell them what to do.

Things are changing but it’s a very slow process and I wanted to be a part of that change. I believe that children should be empowered to raise their voice against violence, abuse and discrimination. That’s why at Mitusko Trust we base our work on the ‘right to participation’ which is one of the four main rights of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

We want to ensure that if a child is being abused in school or at home that he/she can raise their voice against it. We do it through activities such as theatre, art, self-defense and music where we create an enabling environment and in a very casual and informal way we start talking about what they can and can’t do, because rights also come with responsibility.

SC: What has been the most uplifting part of the journey?

SR: In the villages when we hold the workshops, I see children who had never spoken up and never expressed their opinions, start putting forth their views and joining discussions. Watching that and being able to encourage them to do that is a great feeling.

Especially when we do theatre, I see children opening up and coming out of their shells. When we do theatre, we take it very seriously. We hold workshops for make-up, lights and script so that the children are involved in every step. During one such workshop one of the girls, Diksha Naik, wrote a great script to raise awareness about the polluted river in her village. She drew a meandering river and wrote the whole story in the river. It’s this creative energy that is inspiring.

When we get good reviews for the plays and get mentioned in the media, the joy and sense of achievement on these children’s faces make all struggles worth it.

SC: Mitsuko focuses on making underprivileged children aware of their rights. How important is it to emphasise on this?  It’s not something that’s a part of our mainstream school curriculum. 

SR: It’s very important that besides being told what to do, the child is also heard. Which is why we created the children’s panchayat where children come and say what they feel about issues of their community and what they want to do about it. Then we send a representative of this panchayat to the village Bal Gram Sabha (village child committee). The children voice their views on issues such as pollution, toilets and safety.

Such activities should be implemented in mainstream schools too through theatre and the arts. These give them a platform to express themselves and promote a deeper understanding of the environment that they grow up in.

SC: If you could invite three famous people, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be and why?

SR: I would invite my great grandmother, Kamini Roy, a feminist and the first woman graduate in India. I would invite her to see whether I have really made a difference and in any way achieved what she wanted to.

The second person would be the founder of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Henry Dunant, who really inspires me and the third guest would be Jawaharlal Nehru, a true visionary.

Read more about Mitsuko Trust here.

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