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These Kids Learned About Child Rights the Hard Way

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The rope bridge swayed precariously over a deep chasm as Poonam Thapa and her friends made their way across. It was a long trek to the village of Chaap, up in the hills of Nepal, but the 16-year-old former sex slave was undeterred. She had an important cargo to deliver to the school there: a ballot box.

Poonam is a jurist and educator for the World Children's Prize, a global initiative that teaches children in all parts of the world about their rights. Poonam hopes her mission to Chaap will help the young people there avoid the fate she once suffered.

Poonam, a Nepalese orphan, has recounted her tale many times. While working as a child labourer in the Indian city of Shimla she fell in love with an older man.

When Poonam, at age 14, returned to her home village of Ichtko in Nepal her lover followed. He convinced her to return with him to India to be married. He said they should flee separately so as not to arouse suspicion, and gave her an address in Mumbai where they would reunite.

After several days travel, Poonam arrived at the indicated address -- a house in a dark alley. Inside, she found a room full of girls but no sign of her lover. She says one of the older girls took her aside and told her, "You've been sold. This is a brothel."

For 10 months Poonam was raped and beaten by brothel clients, as many as 15 a day, until police freed the abused children. Poonam came into the care of Maiti Nepal, an organization that works to protect Nepalese women and girls from violence and exploitation. Maiti Nepal is a partner of the WCP, and together the two organizations taught Poonam about children's and women's rights, and how she could help others fight for those rights.

The WCP was founded in 2000 by Swedish journalist and filmmaker Magnus Bergmar. It's a brilliant initiative that teaches young people around the world about the rights of children by introducing them to outstanding heroes in the field of child rights.

Each year the WCP brings together a jury of 15 young people from all parts of the world. These children are experts in child rights thanks in part to training they receive, but more importantly, for many of them, because of their own life experiences as former child slaves, soldiers, refugees and street kids. This year one of them was Poonam.

Two Canadian child activists have served on the jury: Laura Hannant of Ottawa from 2000 to 2003, and Hannah Taylor of Winnipeg has been a jurist since 2007.

The child jury selects three finalists from around the globe who have distinguished in the fight for children's rights.

This year the finalists were: Anna Mollel, who works with disabled Maasai children in rural Tanzania; Sakena Yacoobi, an Afghan woman who risks her life to provide education and healthcare for Afghan girls; and Ann Skelton, a lawyer who was instrumental in reforming and protecting the rights of children in South Africa's justice system.

Each January, the WCP launches with the announcement of the three finalists at press conferences around the world. Any participating school can hold a press conference. These conferences are unique in that adults are strictly forbidden from participating as spokespersons. Only children may address and answer questions from the media.

For the next four months, young people everywhere prepare for the vote by studying the lives of the three prize finalists. Information packages help teachers engage their students in discussions about the finalists, and about child rights issues in their own countries.

In addition to being a jurist, Poonam is one of the motivated young people who support the WCP by travelling to schools and teaching about the prize and children's rights.

Then, in May, begins what is likely the world's largest unified, trans-national act of democracy: Global Vote Day. At nearly 58,000 schools more than 7.1 million children cast a ballot to choose which finalist will receive that year's World Children's Prize.

The vote is an astounding feat of logistics, with ballot boxes reaching even remote communities like Chaap. At one school in Pakistan's Thar Desert the ballot box arrives on the back of a camel.

Finally in June, heralded by another round of worldwide children-only press conferences, the children's jury comes together again at Gripsholm Castle in Sweden to present the award to the individual the world's children have chosen as their hero. This year, Anna Mollel took home the Prize and $100,000 USD to support her work with disabled Maasai children.

Meanwhile Poonam has received her own reward. Earlier this year, Maiti Nepal helped her locate and identify to police the man who sold her into slavery. He faces prosecution under Nepal's new human trafficking laws.

Working with Maiti Nepal and the WCP, Poonam will continue travelling from school to school, telling her story and teaching other children about their rights so they can have a brighter future free of exploitation.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free The Children, and are authors of the new book Living Me to We: The Guide for Socially Conscious Canadians www.metowe.com/living.