Once victims, these children are now the vanguards of change

By Azera Rahman, IANS,

New Delhi : One used to stitch footballs in Meerut, another used to work in the mica mines of Jharkhand. Barely in their teens, these former child labourers have experienced the dark side of life many of us have only read about. They have a steely grit in their voices as they discuss various social issues in their villages and try to bring about change.

Support TwoCircles

Take 12-year-old Razia Sultana for instance.

Hailing from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, Sultana was only nine when she started stitching footballs in a tiny workshop in her village after school to support her family of five.

“There were many other children like me who used to stitch together the multi-dimensional patches together to make a football. It was tedious work and I couldn’t manage to stitch more than one a day. That used to fetch me Rs.4, but if it was a big football I used to get Rs.6,” Sultana told IANS.

Sultana was just one of 120 children from across the country who had come together to share their experiences with different challenges — be it child labour, child marriage or exploitation. They offered their solutions in a unique child parliament that was held in the capital July 28-30.

Narrating her experience, Sultana said that after a year of working in the workshop, she decided to quit and concentrate on her studies instead.

“In school we were taught that child labour is an offence, it’s wrong to make a child work. Therefore I decided to quit and told my parents so. They were hesitant initially but later agreed,” she said, showing the prick marks on her fingers — a testimony of the days gone by.

Sultana did not just leave her work, she also became a part of the Bal Panchayat — an initiative by child rights organisation Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), which enables children to take their issues in their own hands, helps them chart out solutions for their problems and puts pressure on elders in their villages to implement them.

“According to me, child labour and child trafficking are the two most serious problems which kids face today. We in the panchayat create mass awareness about these issues and if we know of any child working, we try and enrol him or her in school instead,” added Sultana, who is in Class 8 now.

“We also made my school authorities make a toilet for the girl students. Until now girls had to go to the forest to relieve themselves,” she added.

For 12-year-old Indra Gujar of Rajasthan, child marriage is one issue that plagues her society the most.

“A few weeks back I came to know that my neighbour was getting their 13-year-old daughter married. I took up the issue in the Bal Panchayat and since I am the vice-president, we went to the family and told them it is illegal to get girls married before they are 18.

“We threatened to complain to the police if they did not listen to us. Thankfully they understood our point and enrolled the girl in school instead,” Gujar, who studies in class 7, said with pride.

While Sultana and Gujar have managed to get out of the vicious cycle and are actually helping others like them do the same, some are happy at reaching “a compromise” with the system like the kids of Jharkhand.

A Maoist belt where development is very little, if at all, working in mica mines is the primary means of livelihood in every home.

For 15-year-old Monica Kumari the story was no different.

“Children in my village work in the mica mines everyday for seven to eight hours. They sieve the soil and pick the shiny material which is called mica and collect it. After that we sell it in the market. But we don’t get a good price,” Kumari said.

While the middlemen buy the mica from the families at the rate of just Rs.6 per kilo, they sell it outside for as much as Rs.100-150 per kilo.

“But that is our livelihood. So when the BBA activists said that they will help us go to school our parents understood but were worried about less money coming into our homes. So we decided to go to school on weekdays and pick mica on weekends,” she said.

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at [email protected])