By Aarti Betigeri
JAMSHEDPUR, India, 12 June 2106: In her family’s cramped, three-room brick shack, Divya Kumari Sharma closed the bedroom door firmly. Inside, popular Bollywood songs were blaring from the television set, and the teenager and her friends took turns to dance to the tunes.
Giggling and mimicking the dance moves of the actors, Divya looked like any other 15-year-old. Only, she holds much more fire to fight an age-old societal evil than her youthfulness would like you to be believe.
Dressed in western clothes and wearing an indomitable spirit, Divya has achieved what many others can only dream of: eliminate child labour from her neighbourhood. Like in many other parts of the country and especially in low-income areas like the one she lives in in Jamshedpur, child labour is a plaguing problem. Yet, her efforts have translated former child workers in the panchayat into attending school.
“There is a flame inside her, and she’s using it to advocate for child rights,” says Manju Sharma, Divya’s mother, beaming with pride.
Divya says she always wanted to help bring justice to those who needed it, but it was only when she took part in UNICEF’s Child Reporter programme that her eyes opened up to injustices taking place under her own nose.
She quickly realised that she did not like some of the things she had started noticing about the treatment of children in her area—in particular, of children who were working.
She had learned that it was illegal for children under 14 to be working in roadside stalls, shops and tea stands, so why did she see so many doing this work? Why did their parents not send them to school?
“It hurts to see young children at work, sometimes being beaten by their boss,” Divya says. Convinced that a child’s rightful place was in a classroom and not in a workplace, the confident and assertive teenager attended a fiery town meeting with employers who complained bitterly that her campaign was affecting their business. At the end, she managed to convince the local leader to ban child labour in local tea stalls.
Divya’s young age has nothing to do with her convincing power. She demands attention as soon as she starts speaking, and people listen to her. She is strong, confident and articulate, and radiates intelligence and humanity.
Although they live in Jamshedpur, one of India’s most upcoming industrial cities, Divya and her family stay in a low-income neighbourhood, with squat brick and cement single-storey houses set around an open grassy space, where goats and chickens roam free.
Over the top of the houses a cluster of power lines can be seen, a reminder that Jamshedpur’s main industry is steel. Divya’s family exemplifies the aspirational Indian story of people who work industriously to lift themselves out of poverty, and while they belong to the low-income group, they are relatively comfortable.
Her father is an autorickshaw driver, but owns his own vehicle, while their simple home boats of a satellite dish for their cable television.
Her parents are devoted to their daughter and supportive of her desire for education. “I tell my mother, I want the pen, not a husband!” says Divya, and her mother, sitting nearby, laughs affectionately. “She was always a good student, but the Child Reporter programme has played a big role in her personal development,” says Manju.
Divya is also known throughout her community for these leadership qualities. “I’ve known her since she was very young, I’ve seen her grow up, and always knew she had strong leadership qualities,” says Prakash Sandil, the former mukhiya, or panchayat leader, who was in charge when Divya waged her anti-child labour campaign.
“She told me so many children are working in shops and not getting an education, which is essential to their future. I realised she was correct, and that her cause was a noble one, so I supported her.”
Her teachers also are all praise for the young girl. “Divya is a talented student, always respectful and kind,” says Subren Kujur who is the nodal teacher for the Child Reporters programme in Divya’s former school.
“I remember one incident when the district collector announced that all students should have a bank pass book. Divya collected all 200 students to go to the bank to get one, on her own. The branch manager was so impressed he issued passbooks to all of them on the spot.”
Divya knows her future is in her hands, and is working hard to do the best she can. Her day begins at 4 A.M and she spends most of her time in attending school and extra classes until she goes to bed at 10 p.m. “I want to be in the top ten in the state in my exams,” she confesses a tad shy, probably a little embarrassed to reveal just how ambitious she is.
Yet, for now, her ultimate goal remains somewhat modest—she says she wants to work for the Indian Railways as a ticket collector, a job that will provide her with a stable income and an opportunity to see the rest of the country.
When she reveals her dream, everyone smiles but remains silent, as they predict bigger things. For, she may be young and doing what every teenager does—studying for exams, enjoying with friends—but the wheels of change she is steering is touching everyone’s lives silently.