International Women’s Day: Taking the girl child back to school

Pooja, 12, dropped out of school and began working as a house maid, also stitched shoes at her home in Agra to take care of her ailing mother’s treatment and support her younger brother’s studies

International Women’s Day: Taking the girl child back to school

Swapna Majumdar

Pooja was just 12 when she dropped out of school and began working as a house maid to augment her family’s income. In her spare time, she also stitched shoes at her home in Amarpura village in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, so that she could take care of her ailing mother’s treatment and support her younger brother’s studies.

Sounds familiar? Almost 50 per cent (4.5 million) of the 10.13 million economically active children in the 5-14 year age group are girls, according to the 2011 Census. In fact, of the 152 million working children in the world between 5-17 years, 23.8 million children are in India. In other words, every 6th working child in this age group lives in India.

In Agra, where Pooja lives, an estimated 40,000 children were engaged in some form of labour, according to the 2011 Census.

For most of these children, poverty and a lack of livelihood options for their families compel them to join the labour force, both informal and formal, to contribute to the family income. In the case of girls, they are additionally burdened with the responsibility of taking care of her younger siblings. So either they are never enrolled or they drop out of school to help the family.

It was no different for Pooja. With her father staying away from home and her mother unable to work because of her illness, she was left with no option but to leave school and start working. According to recent data, nearly 12,000 girls dropped out of school in Agra. It was to give these girls like Pooja a second chance to relive their childhood that the Bal Mitra Gram (BMG) initiative was started in nine villages in Agra. Aimed to make these villages free of child labour, this innovative programme launched by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, motivates communities to protect, educate, and provide a safe and healthy environment to the children.

Among the strategies adopted to achieve this objective has been the constitution of Bal Panchayats (children’s parliament), mahila mandals (women’s groups) and yuva mandals (youth groups). Trained by the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation (KSCF) and the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE), the not for profit implementing the programme in Agra, all these three groups have played a crucial role in bringing girls like Pooja back to school.

In the last seven months, 103 of the 193 children enrolled in government school have been girls thanks to collaborative efforts between CURE, Bal Panchayats, mahila mandals and yuva mandals. Of these, 97 girls are between the ages of 6 and 14 and six between 15 and 16. Additionally, 40 girls, aged between 3 and 6 years have been admitted to anganwadis.

A big part of this success is due to the hard work by the girls in the Bal Panchayats and women’s groups who have bolstered CURE’s goal to identify and motivate out-of-school children to resume their education. The fact that girls garnered, through democratic elections, many of the top positions of the Bal Panchayats has given them the confidence and ability to stand up for their rights. With five of the nine deputy pradhans and five of the nine secretariesof the Bal Panchayats being girls, they have made it count.

They have been helped by CURE”s innovative collation of village data based on GIS. Their involved in the development of spatial maps of the village and spatial identification of areas of non-school going and vulnerable children has provided the Panchayats information on where out-of-school children reside and the government school closest to them.

“We assessed the risks children in the villages face and thereafter discussed strategies that could be used to protect and empower them. Special attention was given to those children at risk.Learning about their rights has empowered theBal Panchayats to become the voice of the children. They help to stop child marriages and child labour by making sure children are in school. They are officially recognised by the Gram Panchayat and the village communities and participate in decision making processes,” says Jahnvi Aggarwal, BMG project coordinator, CURE, Agra.

Bal Panchayats have used their collective voice to point out the need for better road connectivity and pumps for the water-deficient villages. In Doretha, one of the nine villages where this intervention is being implemented by CURE, the Bal Panchayat has been successful in persuading the Gram Pradhan to order construction of a broken road leading to their school. “We wrote letters to the village Pradhan on the road as well as the water problem arising from the non operational government submersible. He has now given the official orders for both. It is a big achievement for us,” says Nitesh, pradhan, Doretha Bal Panchayat.

But Nitesh didn’t stop at just improving the infrastructure in her village. As pradhan, the Class 8 student took the bold step of tackling the problem of gambling even though it involved her father and other family members. Although it took a while, Nitesh and her team alongwith the women’s group was able to persuade them to understand its negative impact on children and stop the practice.

Not far away in Magtayi village, 14-year-old Chandni, a student of Class 9, is learning how the tool of visual communications can be used to uphold and protect child rights. Last year, as a Bal Panchayat member, she managed to prevent the marriages of two underage girls and helped to bring back a number of out-of-school children. Seeing her confidence and leadership potential, Chandni was nominated by CURE’s field facilitator Mangesh for further training given by the Kailash Satyarthi Foundation. “Having completed the photography and videography course organised by CURE, I have learnt how to use the mobile phone to make videos and gather evidence against child rights violations. I know the power of social media as I have a Facebook account. Now, my friends and I are hoping to start a channel on YouTube where we can upload our videos on child rights. This way no one will be able to stop us from claiming our rights,” contends Chandni.

(The writer is an independent journalist)

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