By Aarti Betigeri
JAMSHEDPUR, India, 12 June 2016 - For 12-year-old Divya Sharma, child labour was simply inexcusable—so she ensured that it was wiped out in her district in the central Indian city of Jamshedpur. Now, three years later, her area remains child-labour free, and Divya remains committed to ensuring it stays that way.
Most forms of child labour might have been banned by the Indian government 30 years ago, yet it continues in the shadows: in factories, in households, in coal mines and roadside restaurants. It happens in dusty villages and large cities alike, far from the sharp eyes of authorities. But thanks to Divya and her friends, child workers are conspicuously absent in Sopodera, a low-income neighbourhood in Jamshedpur.
Jharkhand, a state of 32.9 million people, is home to 470,000 of India’s estimated 17 million child labourers, according to 2011 census figures. Despite the central government legislating against it, child labour remains a serious problem in the state, as poor families often rely heavily upon income generated by children. Numerous studies also reveal that a paucity of good schools in the area is one of the leading factors in driving children towards work.
Three years back, Divya, now 15, had taken part in the UNICEF Child Reporters programme, which works around article 12 and article 13 of the Convention on Rights of Children (CRC). The programme aims to educate adolescents about their rights and entitlements as minors, to enable them to raise issues that affect their lives (article 12) and to equip them with knowledge of freedom of expression (article 13).
The child reporters programme covers over 1,500 adolescents (900 girls and 600 boys) in 70 schools in Jamshedpur, in the East Singbhum district. It aims to give them awareness about child rights, so they in turn can pass on the knowledge to their communities. In this way, change can be eventually brought about in social attitudes and child rights can be respected.
“When I got the knowledge of child rights I started noticing how children were being badly treated all around me,” says Divya. “I felt, this is not right, and I wanted to do something to fix it.”
She noticed that the rights of children that she had learned about in the classroom were not being realised in the world around her, in Sopadera.
She noticed, in particular, the local tea shops which employed children, and, in some cases, treated them abominably. While Divya’s family is low-income, it is close-knit and supportive, and would never tolerate her abandoning school to earn money. Still, she could see herself in some of the child workers she encountered.
“I saw one shopkeeper badly beating a child who was working for him,” she recalls. “In fact, he was chasing him and beating him with a stick. I was shocked to see this, and sad, because I felt it could have been me.”
She realised this was an opportunity to put into practice some of the things she had learned about in the programme. First, she corralled a group of classmates into forming a small pressure group, and they started going around to the shops and tea stalls in the area, speaking to the child workers to try to convince them to return to school, and to the shopkeepers to convince them to stop employing children.
The shopkeepers were reluctant. Things came to a head when one of her cohorts pulled out a camera and snapped some photos as proof. The shopkeeper marched to the local mukhiya, or village head, to complain about these children who were trying to kill his business.
The mukhiya called a meeting of shopkeepers and parents, and by the end of the meeting had called for a total ban on child labour in his panchayat.
Three years later, today, the panchayat remains mostly child-labour free. Divya and her friends continue to keep watch for instances of child labour and never miss an opportunity to instruct their neighbours on the importance of enrolling their children in school and ensuring they attend classes.
“If any parent doesn’t educate their child, they shouldn’t even have children,” she declares. “It’s not right for children to grow up with less education than their friends, and be illiterate and stuck in low-paid jobs.”
In Jamshedpur, the programme is supported by a local NGO Adarsh Seva Sansthan (ASES). Each participating school has a group of 20 to 30 students involved, who are encouraged to explore unique ways of expressing themselves: through poetry, prose, art or even theatre.
Their work is featured in the Child Reporters' quarterly newsletter, Nanhee Kalam, and on dedicated social media platforms, on Facebook, Twitter and a blog, with thousands of followers across the country.
“We tell them their rights under the UN child rights convention: about the right to live, to development, to protection and to participation (survival, development, protection and participation),” says Chandan Jaswal of ASES. “It opens up their eyes. They start to look around at what is happening around them. If they see a young girl getting married they know this is not good.”
The child reporters then take what they know to their community, sometimes sending letters and poems to local newspapers or appearing on local community radio. They also sometimes meet with local government officials to advocate child rights, and pass on ideas that leaders can activate to help protect children in their districts.
Thanks to the programme, Divya says, awareness about the importance of education is growing in her community, and education facilities are better now than they were in the past. Most girls remain in school until they matriculate in 10th standard (10th grade) while most boys continue until 12th standard (12th grade). The programme, running since 2009, is now being scaled up by the Jharkhand state government to all government schools.
Among those children who has benefited from Divya’s championing of the cause is 12-year-old Umesh Sharma. Umesh opted to leave school when he was younger to work in a local tea stall, so that he was able to earn some money.
He would start work at 6 A.M. and continue until 9 P.M, six days a week, serving tea and samosas to customers, washing dishes and wiping tables. For this, he was paid a paltry Rs. 2,000 per month. “Sometimes the owner would beat me for small mistakes,” Umesh revealed. Once he was beaten so badly that he was bruised all over his arms. Still, he was happy to get the money and used it to buy clothes and food for himself.
One day, Divya came up to him and spoke to him about the benefits of going to school. Her passionate words about the importance of education made him realise that she was right. Today, Umesh is enrolled in a local government primary school, and counts Divya as one of his closest friends. He harbours lofty dreams for his future and is confident of achieving them as well.
“I want to be a teacher, to educate people the way I’m being educated,” he says.