DHANDHODA, India, 12 June 2013 - For almost two years, Sailesh cherished a simple dream, a dream of playing cricket with his friends in the school lawn. But that wish had to wait.
Unlike many of his class mates, Sailesh was mature beyond his age. A quality his father, Babubhai, thought needed to be tapped at an early stage. Against Sailesh’s will, Babubhai pulled him out of school to make him work with him in his cotton farms helping with the daily chores.
His father justifies his decision at the time by saying that the kid was very responsible and dependable. “He was able to accomplish any work I would give him.” Sailesh worked hard in the cotton fields under the hostile sun, while other children of his age attended school.
Throughout the period he was kept away from classeshe got up early in the mornings, collected vegetables, watered the crops and cleaned the cattle. Although he badly missed school and playing cricket with his friends, for whom he was Sachin Tendulkar –the Indian cricket legend-, he would not complain that easily.
At times, very rare, Sailesh mustered courage to convey his yearning to go to school but his father turned a deaf ear and little by little, as a result of the time spent in the cotton fields, he started to forget almost everything about studies, school and friends. Only Sachin’s photo, which used to adorn his school bag, kept peering through the rummage, reminding Sailesh of the good days.
Light at the end of tunnel
Champa and Sumitra, two young girls from the same village in Gujarat rescued him from his mundane routine. They were neighbours and had met countless times but only found the courage to do something after joining the Adolescent Girls Network (AGN).
As part of the IKEA Foundation and UNICEF project on child rights in Gujarat, the Adolescent Girls’ Networks train youth on issues pertaining to child rights violations, child labour and child marriage.
The AGNs have been formed across all the 3,450 villages in Gujarat. About 35,000 members like Sumitra and Champa in six districts learn all about child rights, the issues around child labour and the need for a proper education for every child.
Happier times with father
This training gave them the confidence, skills set and knowledge to advocate for the rights of children engaged in child labour. They identified Sailesh and other children workng in cotton fields and then started persuading their parents to send them back to school.
“When we met Babubhai, he was reluctant to send Sailesh to school and insisted that he needed additional help in the fields,” says Champa. “We explained him that sending Sailesh back to school would instead give him a better chance to a brighter future,” adds Sumitra.
Sumitra and Champa also roped in the support of the village volunteers –community mobilizers linked to the project- to convince Babubhai. Finally, their efforts paid off and he agreed.
Back in school
Today, Sailesh is back in school, a place which means fun, frolic and cricket for him. Years of spending time in cotton fields makes it slightly difficult for him to handle the bat. But as he essays the trade mark straight drive of his idol, he puts to rest doubts of a long term injury.
Thanks to IKEA Foundation and UNICEF partnership, girls like Champa and Sumitra have identified 61,827 out-of-school children. About 20,000 children like Sailesh are now back in school.