The women of Dungarpur like to quote an old Indian proverb that says many small ants can vanquish the large snake. Together they are making that proverb a reality by keeping their children out of labour and sending them to school.
By Angela Walker
Dungarpur, India, 10 April 2011 –The women of Dungarpur like to quote an old Indian proverb that says many small ants can vanquish the large snake. Together they are making that proverb a reality by keeping their children out of labour and sending them to school.
“Children listen to women better, and women can talk to children better. They are the ones that stay home and take care of the child while the men work outside,” said Ramila Vysa, Self Help Group coordinator. “We’re saving children one by one.”
Traditionally, many families have sent their children to work in the cotton fields in the neighbouring state of Gujaratto supplement the family income. Producers argue that children’s nimble fingers are more adept at picking cotton and cross-pollinating cotton seed. The reality is that children are cheap labour and easy to control. Working in the fields exposes them to dangerous pesticides and keeps them out of school.
Now the women in the self-help group are banding together to buy seeds, fertilizer and cattle. Most of the men from the village have migratedto work as casuallabourers leaving the women behind with their children. Having vegetables and milk to sell means that the women can earn some much needed cash that allows them to keep their children home and send them to school.
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“We never had the confidence to go to a bank alone, but as a group we can,” said Narmada Jeeraj, her orange sari wrapped closely around her grey-streaked hair. “Now I have the courage to talk to an outsider.”
Dozens of hands rise up in a sea of brightly coloured saris when the women are asked how many of them have bank accounts.
UNICEF’s work towards eliminating child labour is supported by the Ikea Foundation. IKEA, the homefurnishing giant, sources much of its cotton from India and Pakistan and wants to ensure that child labour is not being used in its production.
IKEA CEO, Mikael Ohlsson, while meeting the women’s group members, said their needs were basic and universal just like the women in his own country, Sweden, and like women elsewherearound the world. They want the best for their children and that they go to school.
“We have a lot to learn and many challenges ahead,” Ohlsson says. “But they realize than an education will mean a brighter future.”
According to 2001 Census data, about 12.7 million children in India are involved in different forms of work. About 70 per cent of India’s child labourers are working in agriculture. Of those 40 percent are working in cotton. Sixty per cent of those children are girls.
More than 3 million children between the ages of 5 to 14 are involved in labour in Rajasthan, making it the third highest state in India.Neighbouring Gujarat has one-quarter of India’s total land under cotton seed and cotton production.
UNICEF is working closely with government leaders in the state to stem the tide of migration. IAS Collector Purna Chandra Kishan leads the women in a rousing chant, “Kalam Sena Zindabad – Safed Mout Murdabad!” (“Long Live the Pen Army –Condemn Death in the Cotton Fields!”)
“It’s fantastic to meet these women,” he says. “This is a very important change, and it’s encouraging to see it happen.”
UNICEF’s work focuses on the Scheduled Tribe populations of Dungarpur (65 per cent of the total population) and Udaipur (48 per cent of the total population). Four key strategies are used: empower families to prevent child labour; strengthen child protection structures at village, district and state level; help vulnerable families access government services and improve education to ensure their children go and stay in school.
UNICEF is targeting 843,700 children between the ages of 6-14. In 2010,the Dungarpur district team and communities were able to reduce child migration into the cotton farms of Gujarat from about 30,000 to 1,500 through an intensive community mobilisation campaign.
“It does make a difference,” said UNICEF Representative Karin Hulshof. “Lives are being touched and touched profoundly. They have started as small self-help groups, but have made real strides in a very short period.”