Mukesh, 12, was working 14-hour days in a cotton field. He's now returned home and re-enrolled in school with support from his local Village Child Protection Committee in Dungapur, India.
By Elliot Hannon
DUNGAPUR, India, 10 June 2011 – When Mukesh Somaji Damore, 12, left his village two years ago to work in the cotton fields, he missed home. Every morning, on an empty stomach, he would wake up at 4 a.m. to start pruning and pollinating cotton plants.
After a brutal 14-hour day, like all of the children working beside him, Mukesh was left to prepare his own dinner. He had only been given a bag of flour to prepare his meals with. If he wanted vegetables to eat, he had to buy them himself.
After dinner, he would stare at the television before going to sleep side-by-side with a dozen other children on the floor of a shed. “I felt very sad. There were days when I would cry,” recalls Mukesh.
And he was damaging his health. Without a mask or any protective equipment, he constantly felt sick from the pesticides spread over the crops each morning. “I felt ill there, I always had a fever,” he says.
India is the world’s second largest cotton producer. In Dungarpur district in the state of Rajasthan, tens of thousands of children like Mukesh are taken across the border each year to work in the cotton fields of the neighbouring state of Gujarat.
Raju Rama Pargi, 13, was told to be ready at midnight. He didn’t know much about picking cotton when he agreed to work in the fields, but he had seen kids from his village come back with new clothes and watches. Raju wanted a mobile phone and working in the cotton fields seemed the only way to get one.
Raju didn’t know where he was going, or who he was meeting at the main road at midnight, two kilometres from his home in Ratadia village. All he knew was that he was heading to Gujarat and that his parents wouldn’t approve.
Just before midnight Raju and his cousin slipped away and walked to where a jeep was waiting with four other children he didn’t know. Luckily, on its journey, the jeep was stopped by police at a checkpoint targeting child trafficking and Raju headed back home.
Raju Rama Pargi (right), 13, was in the midst of being trafficked to work in cotton fields, when police stopped the car he was in. He has since returned to school in Dungapur, India.
Combatting child labour
With the support and guidance of the People’s Education and Development Organisation, a local non-governmental organization working with UNICEF on a child protection programme that aims to get children out of the fields and back into schools, Raju was then convinced that returning to school would be best for his future.
Similarly, when Mukesh came back to Pallasavu village after the harvest season, he vowed never to go back. On hearing that Mukesh was out-of-school, his neighbour, Champalala Tabira, 45, knocked on the family’s door to talk to his mother about re-enrolling him.
Ms. Tabira is a member of the Village Child Protection Committee, which is part of a UNICEF effort, supported by IKEA Foundation, to mobilize local communities across the district to stop child labour.
Last year, thanks to the volunteer committee’s enrolment campaign, 50 new students in the village entered school. Mukesh had already missed much of the school year, so Ms. Tabira made repeated visits to see his mother about starting Mukesh again the following term. “I asked her to send him to school to make her son’s future brighter,” says Ms. Tabira.
Despite not ever setting foot in a classroom as a child, Tabira understands the importance of education for a child and the community. “Even if one child in 100 stays out of school, our whole community remains backward,” said Ms. Tabira.
Rajasthan’s state government is also expanding its efforts to prevent children from going to work in cotton fields by surveying vulnerable households across the state to identify child labour hot spots.
Education a priority
In the state’s southernmost districts, like Dungarpur, UNICEF has already trained 90 village leaders, 120 community workers and linked 1,500 families with social protection schemes to help combat child labour.
Now back in school, Mukesh has developed an interest in science because his teacher takes the time to patiently explain difficult concepts until he understands. His lessons in Sanskrit are still a challenge, but he’s happy to be back.
Mukesh doesn’t plan on stopping his studies any time soon and now has his sights set on becoming a teacher himself. “I’m not going anymore to work on cotton, I’m going to study,” he says.?