Bhargavi (extreme right) with other girls from her collective persuades a family at their house to send their daughter to school.
By Karuna Bishnoi
Andra Pradesh, India: Seventeen year old Bhargavi will never forget the day she went visiting Rajini’s house and learnt that the girls’ sister, Anamika, had been lured to Pune in search of a job as a domestic. Instead she landed in a brothel where she contracted HIV/AIDS and died.
Her story is one of many that Bhargavi has had to deal with. Bhargavi is a ‘change agent’ counselling adolescent girls in the Balika Sangha (an adolescent girl’s club) in Poolathota Harijanwada, Rayachoty of Kadapa district headquarters, Andhra Pradesh. In the Sangha, she discusses issues like marriage, domestic violence, health, education, gender discrimination and advises girls on problems faced by them. Having learned about the dangers of exploitation of children and young people, she visits families at risk and ensures the safety of children through periodic checks at the family and community levels.
Moved and upset by Anamika’s story, Bhargavi was determined that something had to be done. She counselled the family, urging them to take action. She got the photograph of the brothel owner (Gharwali) and passed on the information to the local police. This led to the arrest of the man who was responsible for their daughter’s fate.
Bhargavi and other girls from the collective work closely with members of local women’s and youth groups and organized ‘Community Vigilant Group’ to keep track of young girls and women in the community and prevent them from being exploited. They are extra careful during festivals or celebrations when the trafficking risks are even higher.
Bhargavi has spent three years in the girls collective. She is more confident now, has information on nutrition, health and gender discrimination. She knows how to protect herself and has the phone numbers of persons who can help if she needs help. “This programme motivated me to resume my education. I have learnt the importance of education for girls” she says. Once a grade ten drop-out, she is now in grade twelve and wants to be a nurse so she can serve the poor where she lives.
Bhargavi has been trained in drama and is part of the group that regularly highlights social issues affecting children. The perils of trafficking, hazards of child marriage and need for girls to be educated are all part of the popular campaign. She performs in a street theatre group which has given more than 80 performances in villages, schools, bus stations and other crowded locations. Through drama and songs based on local real-life stories that touch the hearts of the community these performances are creating awareness. “Gradually there is a change taking place in the community mind-set,” says Sridevi, a supervisor in the programme since its inception.
Girls from upper primary school in Kapada district light candles, sing a song on awareness and make a symbolic circular form to show solidarity and unity against discrimination and exploitation.
“I am proud that I am able to stop young girls from being misled to leave the village,” Bhargavi says confidently. “I also feel good that I motivate girl drop-outs to go back to school”.
Adolescent girls in 51 villages of Kadapa district have been organized into 42 Balika Sanghas set up for the school drop-outs. Like Bhargavi, these girls have learned about health, nutrition and prevention of HIV/AIDS and how to fight exploitation. They also get vocational training in sewing and garment manufacture to enable them to get jobs. This is making the adolescent girls more confident and many are taking an active role to prevent exploitation of minors and women. The young girls are proving that given the right opportunity they can be part of the solution.
Child Protection Committees in all 52 junior high schools for girls have been established in the district in the economically deprived areas. Games, dialogue and other informal methods are used to make children understand the dangers of trafficking and early marriage in communities where traditionally these are accepted norms. The objective is to ensure that teachers and girls in schools are aware and able to protect themselves.
The Anti Trafficking Network with its community based preventive approach is active in 151 vulnerable villages of three districts of Kadapa, Anantapur and Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh and is promoting protection of children against commercial and sexual exploitation.
UNICEF Hyderabad is providing technical assistance, guidance, monitoring support and a common platform for all network partners. "The most exciting part of the programme has been to see young people vulnerable due to gender, caste or tradition be part of an empowering process, gain confidence and take control of their lives through the Girls Collectives and campaigns on child protection. Here we see communities empowered and convinced that prevention is possible and they are being given a helping hand by the government. Efficient enforcement has helped in sending a clear message across to traffickers “said UNICEF Hyderabad, Child Protection Specialist, Sudha Murali.
Under the leadership of the Collector, the chief administrator of the district, staff from the Rural Development, Women and Child Development, Education, Revenue and Police departments work hard to see that services from their respective departments reach vulnerable families with adolescent girls. Membership in Self-Help Groups, access to easy credit and subsidised food through the public distribution system are some of the services offered. This targeted approach is supported with strong community vigilance backed by tough enforcement by the Police department. “Prevention has shown results. We have had no new cases of girls from this region being found in brothels recently and that is an achievement” said Collector, Kadapa, M. T. Krishnababu.