By Azera Parveen Rahman
KURNOOL, India 9 September 2013 - In Yadavali village,Kurnool district, there has been a marked decrease in the number of out-of-school children, of child labour in the agricultural fields, and of child marriage which was earlier a common custom.
Much of this change has been due to the efforts of the community elders and the adolescent girls of the village who play a crucial role in creating a protective environment for children, and safeguarding their rights.
The Balika Sangha, or Girls Collective, where the adolescent girls of the village discuss issues like child labour, child marriage or child abuse, among others, and the Child Protection Committee (CRPC), formed by local elected representatives, are two important pillars of the structure created by the Government of Andhra Pradesh with the support of UNICEF to create a protective environment for children.
“Why should you be scared when you know you have done nothing wrong?” asks z, one of the members of the Balika Sangha, in a high pitched voice as others around her nod in agreement. All eyes are directed at Suvarna, a student of class 7, who had brought up the issue of harassment by groups of men and boys on the road in their village who make lewd comments whenever she crosses them by alone.
Showing great self-confidence, 17-year-old Meena is trying to raise awareness and bring about change in attitude among the young girls of the village, boosting their confidence so they are better prepared to address the challenges they face.
“When we (girls) appear meek and scared, they (men) try to take advantage of our fear and intimidate us even more. You have to be brave. Don’t keep quiet. Speak out and complain to the elders if necessary,” she says, gently hinting at other forms of harassment and abuse as well.
Abuse is not the only topic that worried these 20 girls. Education, child labour, child marriage and the importance of maintaining good health and hygiene also monopolize their conversations which are carefully followed by two anganwadi workers.
Sunita who isthe president of a different Balika Sangha but is sitting today with the girls in Yadavali, says that the main reason she joined the group, back in 2009, was because she wanted to stop discrimination against girls.
“Girls face a lot of discrimination in the society. For instance, if a girl falls ill, the family takes her to the quack (local doctor), but if the boy falls ill, they rush him to the hospital and take more care. We eat leftovers, after men in the family have eaten. Before being a part of the group, we didn’t protest against this, but now we do,” she explains.
Meena agrees. “When my mother argues that my brother gets more importance because I will get married one day and leave home while my brother will stay back with them, I tell her that that I work harder than my brother, and therefore I should be treated equally.”.
This group of girls plays an active role in resolving children’s issues. For example, they personally intervene whenever a case of child marriage comes up.
“My friend Rani’s parents wanted to marry her off when she was just 16. I provided counsel to her and informed about the ill effects of child marriage on her health and on her family life. We even discussed the legal implications, as child marriage is an illegal practice. Then, some of us went and spoke to her parents. They finally agreed, and today she is happily pursuing her studies,” Sunita says, adding then there has been no other such case for the past two-three years.
Likewise the Girls Collectives have been fulfilling their role of changing attitude, identifying child protection issues, and fighting discrimination successfully, the Child Protection Committee (CRPC) too has been playing an important role in steering the community towards creation of a child protective environment.
A.Ananda, former sarpanch (village headman) of the Yadavali village and chairperson of the CRPC of the block, says that ever since they have started working, there have been no out-of-school children in the area.
“Before the CRPC started working, there were many out-of-school children working in the cotton fields. We identified such children and got 11 kids enrolled in school,” he comments.
“Child marriage too is a thing of the past now. We provide counsel to parents and, if necessary, get help from other quarters. In one case we even called the District Magistrate to intervene, which resulted in the marriage of a young girl being called off and instead going back to school”.
The CRPC has 15 locally elected members, including the village headman, Anganwadi and ASHA workers, women of self-help groups and the headmaster of the school, formed with the aim of involving community leaders in child protection issues.
“The CRPC discusses prevailing issues related to children, like child marriage, child labour, out-of-school children, child abuse, and ways and means to end them,” states Ram Babu, a CRPC member of the same village. “We work in association with the police and other government departments, like labour, education, and NGOs to fulfil our aim”.
For some of the CRPC members, the fight has been a source of inspiration for personal battles too. G. Renuka, an Anganwadi worker and CRPC member, for instance says that being a part of the group has helped her gain courage and confidence to fight for her daughter.
“My family has not been supportive of letting my daughter study beyond class 10. But through these CRPC discussions I have got the courage to fight against everyone to let her continue her studies. Marriage will happen when it has to, but her education will be lifelong partner,” she concludes with determination.