Arfa Khatun (2nd from right in front row) and Sunita Mahato (1st on right in 2nd row), both 13 years old at the Bagandih special school under National Child Labor Project (NCLP), Purulia.
By Angela Walker
PURULIA DISTRICT, West Bengal India, 6 November 2009 – Jakir Ansari, used to work in the circus as a clown, and his face and arms are studded with scars where the knives thrown at him missed their mark. Today he works as a day labourer earning about 1,200 rupees, or about $26 per month, to support his family.
His youngest daughter, Arfa Khatun, was sent out to work as a maid when she was eight-years-old. Ansari planned to marry her off when she turned 13 just as he had done with her elder brother and two sisters. But Arfa took a stand almost unheard of in her traditional community – she said no.
“Of course one day we will all get married but not before 18 and not before my studies are finished,” says Arfa, a shy smile lighting up her face framed by two coiled braids with big ribbons adorning each side.
Arfa sits among her three friends dressed in a rainbow of yellow, green and orange on one of two beds that fill her small home. Bedding is neatly folded and placed on one end. A mosquito coil is nailed to one wall and a clock ticks on the other as a fan whirls lazily overhead.
‘One day I will be a journalist’
“Right now we are children,” says her friend Saima Khatun, 13, who herself worked as a domestic labourer but now is in the same class as Arfa and wants one day to be a journalist. “It won’t be hard to find a groom. We are not even thinking about marriage.”
The girls attend the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) school run by the Government’s labour department to rehabilitate working children and help mainstream them in the education system.
Twenty-three out of the 93 schools in Purulia have child rights groups, supported by UNICEF, to educate students about their rights, including leadership development, communication skills and problem solving. The children have even begun their own newsletter called “Noton Alao,” meaning “New Light” in Bengali.
“For many of these children, school is the only place where they are treated as a child. Even when they are with their families they are expected to work. They are treated as earners,” says Prosenjit Kundu, Assistant Labour Commissioner in Purulia. “In school they get the affection, the care and the quality teaching and mixing with other children of the same age.”
The power of knowledge gives the strength to say no
Learning in school has given the girls confidence to stand up to their families and communities and make decisions about their future, says Kundu.
“They previously had no idea about child rights. Now they are very empowered,” Kundu says. “These girls are providing an alternative voice that child marriage is bad and should not be socially sanctioned. They are working at the community level to stop child marriage.”
Initially the girls were ridiculed for the stand they were taking. “We used to get teased. Now everyone accepts that this is our right. We can continue our studies,” Saima says. “Previously local men would have discomfort that a girl is making this decision. I challenged them, ‘What do you know – that’s old thinking.’”
West Bengal has the sixth highest rate of child marriage in the country. Child marriage poses serious health risks both to the girl and her unborn child. Though the average age of marriage of girls is 18.5 years in the state, in many rural areas it is routinely practiced.
School has empowered these girls
“Getting children out of work and into school has empowered these young girls,” said Lori Calvo, chief of UNICEF’s West Bengal office. “Knowledge of their rights has given them the strength to say no to child marriage and complete their education.”
According to a survey done by the West Bengal Department of Women and Child Development, 48 per cent of girls in the state were married when they were minors. There are laws to prevent child marriage and punish those guilty of violating the law. Yet only two cases have been registered under the Child Marriage Restraint Act in 2005.
In Purulia, approximately 90 per cent of its total population of more than 2.5 million residents lives in rural areas. Fifty-one per cent of girls marry before the age of 18. An estimated 33 per cent of families in the district live below the poverty line.
Female literacy rates are also among the lowest in India with only 37.15 per cent out of a total population of 2.5 million in the district. (as per census 2001)
Gulam Rabbani Ansary, the girls’ teacher at the NCLP school, says they were previously shy and were not coming to school regularly. As time went on, however, they became more and more confident and were able to express themselves freely.
‘A girl’s education is an asset for her entire family’
“The children love to come to school,” he says. “When a girl is educated she will take care of all of her children. A girl’s education is an asset for her entire family.”
Initially, Ansari was not ready to accept his youngest daughter’s decision. So Arfa turned to NCLP for support.
“My elder sisters were not ready to get married at that early age, but my parents were not ready to accept it,” she says. “I am more determined than my sisters, and I’m getting support from my school.”
In the end Ansari was convinced by his daughter and the pleas of her teacher and fellow students. He’d also seen the hard life his other daughter leads. At 18, she already has four children to take care of.
“I realize that once a girl gets married she gets worn out physically. I look at her face, and her face reflects that she is not well,” he says. “She never says anything, but a father knows. Arfa went to work at eight-years-old working as a maid in a local household.”
His wife, Hasuba Bibi, never learned to read or write, but now Arfa is teaching her.
“My daughter is pressing hard to learn and read. ‘You also learn,’ she tells me,” Bibi says proudly. “We have a big family and her father was not able to earn more. We didn’t know. If we were aware, I would have allowed them all to be in school and to study.”