World Environment Day 2023: How a teen climate crusader battled poverty, abuse after Cyclone Yaas
Across the world, there are millions of children who have been displaced from a stable life by climate-change induced natural calamities
As news of cyclone Mocha advancing towards India’s eastern coast blared from television sets and microphones a few weeks ago, 16-year-old Sikha (name changed), a Green Scout member in her remote village in Bengal’s South 24 Parganas, watched the ominous dark clouds gathered on the horizon.
Cyclones, storms and floods are a way of life in the environmentally fragile zone that Sikha lives in. Year after year, villages in the region have been ravaged, leaving behind a trail of death, destruction of property and infrastructure, damage to the environment and ecosystem and endless misery. Lives and livelihoods have been rebuilt, only to be decimated again the following year or the next.
In 2020, it was Cyclone Amphan, and the following year it was Cyclone Yaas.
Sikha can never forget how her life changed after Yaas. The cyclone had flattened their home, and the incessant rain and flooding that followed submerged whatever remained. When calm returned, her village was in ruins, as far as the eye could see.
Over the next few months, Sikha’s family of five, lived on one watery meal a day. A tarpaulin sheet tied precariously over four bamboo poles was the roof over their heads. For Sikha though, the worst was yet to come.
One dark day, Sikha’s “aunt” told the Class IX student that she would find a good home for her in a neighbouring village, where she would get two meals a day, a roof over her head and also help with studies. She took the unsuspecting girl to an unknown house in an unknown place and left her there.
Back home, when the hapless parents enquired about Sikha, the aunt said she had married off their daughter in a happy family, where she would be taken care of well. Already struggling to provide a square meal for his family and a roof over their heads, the father thought whatever had happened had happened for the best.
A few villages away, the “best” turned out to be hell for Sikha. The husband and the family took turns in physically assaulting her every single day and night. She was made to do chores, kept unfed and not allowed to come out.
Sikha forgot to smile. Actually, she could just about manage to breathe and live. There came a moment when she could take the torture no more — she ran away. The flight to freedom was short-lived, though. Back in her nightmare, the blows reigned free.
Days rolled into several months and the parents hadn’t heard a word about their teenage daughter. When repeated questions to the “aunt” did not work, the family approached Kaajla Janakalyan Samity, a CRY partner and explained the situation. “We took the family to the police. The father narrated the situation. The police told them that if the girl didn’t return on her own in a few days, they would accept a complaint,” said Vivekananda Sahu, project coordinator of Kaajla.
Around the same time, Sikha’s mother received a phone call from an unknown number. The voice on the other side, barely recognizable after almost a year, told a horror story of torture, abuse and a “marriage” of sorts. Sikha could not give the name of the village she was kept confined at, but the neigbour whose phone she was using, mentioned the name.
The Kaajla team swung into action, contacted the Gram Panchayat Pradhan of that particular village and made plans to bring her back. Before they could rescue her, Sikha ran away from hell, and this time she succeeded.
Back home with her parents, the nightmare came out in the open. The aunt, who many in the village say doubles as an “agent”, was nowhere to be found.
A new beginning
In December 2022-January 2023 began a process of recuperation and rehabilitation for Sikha. “The girl was in trauma and suicidal. It took us endless talks to convince her that she could fight back,” said Sahu.
With help and encouragement, the 16-year-old started attending classes at the Antarasha centre, run by Kaajla and CRY. She was admitted to a local school. Antarasha gave Sikha a reason to live and believe. Support classes made up for her learning gap and life-skill sessions helped her become mentally strong.
Sikha attended special sessions where she learned about environmental degradation, global warming, soil erosion and more. She knows now why cyclones, storms and floods have become more frequent than before. She is aware that her village may be decimated again in the aftermath of another Amphaan or Yaas. And she knows how lives can change after a natural calamity. Hers did.
Now a student of Class X, Sikha has joined the Green Scouts team in her village. Conscious of the fragile ecosystem around her, she tries to spread awareness about the little things that we can do to conserve our environment.
People need to know more about why the cyclones happen, and steps that can be taken in daily lives to mitigate the sufferings in the aftermath. Sikha and team convince people to plant trees and nurture them. The more the greenery, the less the amount of carbon dioxide in the air — the easiest remedy to reverse the adverse effects of climate change.
The 16-year-old has stopped the use of plastic in her family and she asks neighbours to do the same. Plastic waste can choke rivers and propel erosion at the edges, the crusader tells people.
Developing new understanding
A climate crisis is a child rights crisis, according to UNICEF. Climate change is the greatest threat facing the world’s children and young people. It poses major threats to their health, nutrition, education and future.
Across the world, there are millions of children like Sikha who have been displaced from a stable life or adversely impacted by a climate-change induced natural calamity.
The important question: What can be done to redress? To begin with, efforts to sustain a livable planet must not only account for the unique needs and vulnerabilities of young people; they must also include them in the solutions. Children have critical skills, experiences and ideas for safer, more sustainable societies.
On World Environment Day, it is our responsibility to groom children like Sikha, who have been victims themselves, as ‘change-makers’ for the environment. Let them learn to use their knowledge and resources available to them to protect and conserve the Earth. Let them carry the mantle of ushering in a better tomorrow for themselves and the generations to follow.
Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.
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