Sujata, a girl from the Musahar caste learns to sew in Patna, Bihar. Most girls from her caste are excluded form the educational system.
Until a year ago, eight-year-old Laxmina was too busy working to even think of going to school. She earned about 30 Rupees (less than a dollar) a day in return for delivering milk to nearby villages more prosperous than her own.
But all that has changed now. Laxmina has been attending an alternative learning centre (ALC), along with 40 other children in her home district of Mirzapur, which is located in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. It is one amongst many such centres set up four years ago with UNICEF support to help educate children who have never been to school.
Over 20 per cent of India’s working children are from Uttar Pradesh, most of whom work at odd jobs, in factories and in the carpet industry for meagre wages. But their labour plays a key role in supplementing their families’ meagre income. One of the main reasons for the high prevalence of child labour in these areas is the burden of debt, which forces families to send their children to work. Low literacy rates further compound the problem.
UNICEF addresses the issue of child labour through a combination of approaches including a focus on changing prevalent mindsets, forming self-help groups, improving the quality of mainstream education, providing transitional schools to return children to learning levels appropriate to their age.
But education is seen to play a crucial role in eliminating child labour. UNICEF’s approach therefore focuses on motivating communities to send girls and boys (who have never been to school or who have dropped out) to alternative learning centres.
The centres have been set up mostly in areas that do not have a school within a 1.5 kilometre radius and each caters for around 40 students. The aim is to help children complete primary education – which normally takes five years – within three years. At the end of this period, the children are integrated into formal school.
Assessments occur throughout this period. An examination is organised at the end of each class semester, which lasts for six months, while the final examination for class V is conducted by the district education officer. All those who pass the exams are awarded a certificate, which is key to getting admission to other schools recognised by the government.
The initiative, funded by IKEA (with about 500,000 dollars), through UNICEF’s German National Committee has covered around 650 villages in two districts of Uttar Pradesh. Around 200 Alternative Learning Centres (ALCs) are currently functional. These help in reaching out to more than seven thousand children, of whom 55 per cent are girls.
Education has helped these children not only read and write but has also provided them with a sense confidence and empowerment.
Eight-year-old Laxmina who had until recently thought that the only work her community would ever do was weave carpets, now talks of wanting to be a doctor for her village – a clear sign of change. Organising women into self-help groups has also set off its own process of social transformation. It has helped wrench them out of a debt–poverty cycle since they no longer need to take loans at high interest rates.
Over 14,000 women from these 650 villages have saved more than 10 million Rupees. More than 50 per cent of this money is now circulating as loans in these villages. In one village, a woman succeeded in rescuing her son, who was taken away to work as bonded labour in exchange for her inability to pay back a small loan, with the help of these collective savings. More children are now going to school instead of going to work, and women have learnt through their association with self-help groups crucial lessons that are helping them be far more self-reliant and informed than before.
The districts of Bhadohi, Mirzapur, Jaunpur, Varanasi, Allahabad and Sonbhadra account for over 85% of the country’s total carpet exports. The growth of the industry in these areas is attributed to the availability of cheap labour here, since a large number of people live below the poverty line and are willing to work for very meagre wages.
Carpet weaving is done through a traditional process of hand knotting on simple looms kept inside homes.
This is one reason why it is difficult to enforce labour laws since large exporter-manufacturers don’t employ the labour force directly, and nor is a large proportion of work carried out on exporters’ premises. Children get involved in the work because families require as many hands as possible.
Understandably, there was strong resistance to the interventions when they were first introduced. “It was extremely difficult to convince people to send children to school. When we would go to a village, they would all run away saying, these people have come to take away our children,” says Sanjeev Srivastava, of the Bal Adhikar Pariyojana, a state government initiative for the prevention and elimination of child labour in the carpet belt, supported by UNICEF.
It took several months before people began to see that setting up schools or starting their own savings, would only help them improve their own lives. Nandlal, a father of four, whose two children have been mainstreamed into a formal school, did not get an opportunity to go to school himself. He used to work with his father on the loom and expected his sons to do the same.
He too was reluctant at first to send his children to school. But now he says he understands the value of education and feels that this is the only way people like him can improve the quality of their lives. “If I had been educated, I would not have faced the kind of problems that I do today.”
His wife, Susheela, who was married off by the time she was thirteen, could not even have dreamt that girls could ever have access to education. But both her daughters are now in school. She wants them to complete their education before marrying.
While getting out-of-school children to ALCs, the project also works at addressing high dropout rates at formal schools. In areas where the ALCs have been phased out, support centres have been started to help children adjust to primary schools for a year.