Odisha kids band together to fight social evils

By Jatindra Dash, IANS,

Kendujhar (Orissa) : Hiramani Bentkar, 12, will no longer work on the fields in her village in Kendujhar district or help with domestic work. She now proudly walks to school, carrying a bagful of books.

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Hundreds of children like Hiramani, who have earlier supplemented the family income by working at roadside eateries, garages, brick kilns, in cattle rearing and in collecting minor forest products have adapted to a new routine in Odisha, thanks to groups of children who worked to persuade their parents.

According to Hiramani, the children have formed a club in her village, Kumulabahali, in the mineral-rich Kendujhar district, about 250 km from state capital Bhubaneswar, and put up a determined fight against various social evils, including the widespread practice of encouraging girls to drop out of school to supplement family income.

The club ‘Himalaya Sisu Sabha’ has a total of 44 members, all of whom are below 18 years of age. The children meet once a week, usually on a Saturday, and discuss the issues they face and possible actions to better their lives. The village has a population of about 1,500; most of the villagers are tribals.

The children were encouraged to form the club and work as a group after volunteers of the Peoples’ Cutural Centre (Pecuc), a non-government organisation, met them and told them that children too could take matters into their own hands and demand their due. The NGO worked with particular focus on children who had dropped out of studies, and persuaded the parents of children who had stopped attending school to send them back.

The efforts of the volunteers bore good results.

“Our village has now become child labour free. Almost all the children now go to school,” said Hiramani, who herself joined the club after being enrolled in the school.

Hiramani’s is only one of about 300 such clubs formed in the district.

“The situtation was shocking when we visited this village in 2005,” said Ranjan Mohanty, secretary of Pecuc, which has been instrumental in the formation of more than 300 such child rights clubs mostly in the Kendujhar area with support from International NGOs like Save the Children and Terre Des Hommes, Germany.

“A system locally termed as ‘bagalia’ (similar to bonded labourer) was widely practised in the region and mostly children were hired on annual contract for animal rearing, domestic work and other tasks,” Mohanty told IANS.

The first child rights club started with only about eight members. Gradually, more children joined the club and the numbers swelled, Mohanty explained.

Apart from their efforts to keep all children in school, the clubs have even begun to address issues like child marriage, child trafficking and gender or caste discrimination. These activities too are supported by local NGO activists.

“Children of different castes were not allowed to sit together during their midday meal in some schools and in community feasts a few years ago. Things have now changed,” Ujjaini Mohanty, 16, a resident of nearby Bolaniposhi village and a senior child rights club leader.

India is home to the highest number of child labourers in the world. Millions of child workers do not go to school. In Odisha, the children currently not attending school in the age range of six-17 years is 18.3 percent, and children aged five-14 years engaged in work is 4.1 percent, according to government data.

The district of Kendujhar is considered to be one of the worst-hit when it comes to school dropouts, with a large number of parents sending their children for work both inside and outside the state.

“We are attempting to provide platforms to the children so that they actively participate in decision making and make their voices heard,” Sasank Padhi, state programe manager of Save The children which has been helping organisations like Pecuc, told IANS.

(Jatindra Dash can be contacted at [email protected])