Changing lives by speaking up: Kowsalya’s story

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 1 – the right to childhood; Article 28 – the right to a quality education

Kowsalya looks into the camera with determination, the background are outside scenes.
UNICEF India/2019/Sudarajan
21 November 2019

Ennore, Chennai, India – Kowsalya doesn’t remember her parents’ faces. They died when she was young, leaving Kowsalya and her siblings orphaned in a fishing village in Chennai, India.

“My father was a heartbroken rickshaw puller who died a few years after my mother,” Kowsalya said. “I always wondered if my life would be different if they had been around.”

The children moved in with Kowsalya’s paternal aunt, uncle and five of their children. Kowsalya’s uncle was an alcoholic, who’s constant drinking often made the family’s life unbearable. The responsibility of caring for eight children fell entirely on the shoulders of Kowsalya’s aunt.

“My aunty has done everything for my siblings and me,” Kowsalya said.


Life alongside the Ennore Creek

Kowsalya’s aunt runs a small food stall in front of the family’s house, earning barely enough to get the family by. Though Kowsalya loves Ennore, a bustling neighbourhood sandwiched between the sea and the highway, Kowsalya was always conscious of the toll life in the village took on families throughout the area.

“As you walk down my neighbourhood, you will see fishermen hauling in the fresh catch, children playing, youth singing gaana[1] songs, people frying fish, waves rippling, and youngsters playing carrom on streets,” Kowsalya said.

Ennore’s vibrancy depends upon the community’s generations-long dependency on the nearby creek. Communities in and around Ennore base their livelihoods on the fish market – a reliance that, in recent years, has been threatened by flooding and natural disaster.

In poverty-stricken areas of India, child marriage is often seen as a way to ensure security amidst such vulnerabilities – a perception that caused Kowsalya’s cousin, Revathi, to get married at the age of 15.

“The year after Revathi got married, she became a mother,” Kowsalya said. “Now, with three children, my 24-year-old cousin bitterly regrets having married young. She feels helpless that she has so few choices in her life.”


Kowsalya’s transformation into a children’s rights advocate

From an early age, Revathi’s situation tugged at Kowsalya. She started to seek out more information about child marriage, child rights and child labour by attending meetings at a non-governmental organisation in her neighbourhood, the Arunodhaya Centre for Street and Working Children.Through activities at the organisation and its children’s club, Kowsalya realised that not only do children have rights – but that she, even as a young girl, could amplify them.

“I gained knowledge through these meetings on various children’s rights issues, including child marriage and child labour.”

— Kowsalya
Kowsalya sits with her back to the camera, outside, in a circle of school children.
UNICEF India/2019/Sudararajan
Kowsalya discusses child's rights with a group of younger children. After having learned about child's rights, she has made it a point to share this knowledge with her peers.


Changing Ennore, one battle at a time

Pushing for children’s rights has made Kowsalya a household name in her community. She is easily recognisable now, and whenever there are issues related to children’s rights, peers and community members seek out Kowsalya for advice. She uses her involvement in the children’s club to amplify these issues on an unprecedented level.

“Advocating as a group is far more effective than working individually,” Kowsalya said. “When we voice our opinions as a group, people tend to take our issues more seriously. The children’s club has gotten a lot of recognition this way. Being the club president has also made me more assertive and more confident. Over time, my skills in both interpersonal relations and communications have soared. Through my work, I have earned respect not only from my peers, but also of adults and community leaders.”

Kowsalya has also dedicated her time to other children’s issues, such as child labour and water scarcity. Both of these issues have implications on children’s safety and educational opportunities. Since the club was formed, Kowsalya and her peers have become more equipped to control and prevent child labour.

“We also have a major water scarcity problem in our area,” Kowsalya said. “The water supply is erratic. Many girls have dropped out of school so they can collect water from the tanker, which could come at any time. This troubled me a lot, so my friends and I decided to take a bold step. We created a petition and presented it to the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board in our locality. In the petition, we requested the Board to change water supply times, streamlining the water tanker deliveries to come at a particular time in the evening. This timeline would prevent girls from wasting their whole days waiting for water and help them attend school and college. As a result, the authorities changed the water supply timing.”

Kowsalya looks at the camera with a soft smile, a painted blue door is in the background.
UNICEF India/2019/Sundararajan
Kowsalya is focusing her determination and confidence towards a future of continuing to stand up for the rights of children in India.


Changing children’s lives, both now and for years to come

Despite their economic situation, Kowsalya’s aunt and uncle are supportive of her and are proud of what she does. Today, Kowsalya is completing her first year of studies in economics at the Government Arts and Science College in Tondiarpet, Chennai. In the future, she aspires to become a lawyer.

“I did not want to stop my education after school,” Kowsalya said. “My family was supportive but did not have the means, so Arunodhaya is now funding my college education. In the future, I am determined to become a lawyer – I want to continue working on issues related to the rights of children.”

More and more adolescents like Kowsalya are now fully aware of their rights and are willing to advocate, voice and fight until all children, in every community, attain them.


[1] Gaana, a style of Tamil music, originated in Tamil Nadu, India. This style of music was created to remember those who have passed, but over time, it has evolved to become associated with social reform and human rights. Gaana songs are characterised by lively percussion and fast-paced melodies in triple pulse beats.