Anas Mohammed, 11, (centre) with his mother, Suraiya, and sister Mantasha. Anas is an ex-child laborer who has gone back to school with the help of a UNICEF project. The project aims to help an estimated 8,000 children working in metal ware industry.
MORADABAD, Uttar Pradesh, 22 September 2011 – Anas Mohammed, 11, began his shift at 6 A.M., working barefaced just inches away from the white hot hole in the ground where molten metal sometimes exploded.
In a tiny metalware workshop in the slums of Moradabad, Anas was surrounded by the clang of hammers, the shrill grinding of metal polishing machines and barefoot workers whose eyelashes and hair were coated with a fine grey metallic dust, giving them the appearance of tin men.
“It was hot, it was hard to breathe, and the foreman often cursed me,” Anas recalls.
One of an estimated 8,000 children employed in Moradabad’s booming metalware industry, Anas’s job was to spin a bicycle wheel rigged to a tiny fan which kept the coals white hot. Brass and copper were melted in smelters and then poured into moulds to make vases, candle stands, photo frames, spangly fruit bowls and fireplace implements for retailers worldwide.
“My father lost his job as a rickshaw driver, so I had to leave school and work,” says Anas, who used to earn 120 rupees (about US$3), for a 40-hour work week – less than half what an adult earns for the same job.
Moradabad, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, produces 80 per cent of India’s metalware exports. Child labour is illegal, but the law is only enforced in factories. Walk down any alleyway in the city’s poor neighbourhoods, and children – mostly boys – can be seen working in small workshops. Factories outsource work to informal, family-run units where it’s more difficult to enforce the law.
Helping parents help their children
Since 2009, a citywide project funded by the IKEA Foundation has sought to identify working children and help put them back in school.
Anas was identified during a house-to-house survey conducted by a UNICEF local partner NGO, Ankur Yuva Chetna Shibir. Jamil Ahmed of Ankur says he spoke to Anas’ parents and helped them enrol their son in a free government school nearby.
The project takes a holistic approach by helping communities understand and identify their own problems, empowering women, and working with the government to improve the quality of education in schools. As a result, more than 7,000 children who were identified as ‘out of school’ during the survey have now been brought back to classrooms, according to Tannistha Datta, UNICEF’s Child Protection Specialist in Uttar Pradesh.
So far, local NGOs in partnership with UNICEF have helped organize nearly 100 women’s groups, rallied the city’s conservative religious leaders to support education, and opened two vocational training centres for older children to help take the financial pressure off their school-age siblings.
Young children are provided with the opportunity to express themselves through comic book workshops and there are even camps to help those whose education have been interrupted to catch up with their school work.
Children use street plays to deliver a message
In a dusty open field beside a market where vegetables and glass bangles are sold in hand-woven baskets, Anas and other children from the neighbourhood perform a play with a message for their local community.
Ringed by men in prayer caps, women with henna-dyed hair and wide-eyed children, Anas draws laughter with his authentic portrayal of a tea stall owner with a drinking habit.
The tea stall owner sleeps late due to his constant hangovers and forces his school-age daughter to run his business.
Later, teachers intervene when the young girl falls ill and they reason with her father to allow her to go back to school.
“What do you people know?” shouts the girl’s mother. “Stay out of our business!”
A metal worker pours molten brass into a mould to create a decorative tea light holder in Muradabad in Uttar Pradesh. With the help of a UNICEF project, an estimated 8,000 children working in the Moradabad’s metal ware industry have gone back to school.
Yet, by the end of the play, the girl’s father repents and she is allowed to stop working and attend school. Anas and his fellow actors solicit a promise from the audience, in which there are many parents and grandparents.
“Please promise us that you will let your children study. It’s like an insurance policy, pay now and you’ll reap great rewards in ten or fifteen years.”
There is an uneasy silence, and then one man comes forward to commit to the children’s plea, drawing applause from those gathered.
UNICEF works closely with the Uttar Pradesh State Government to implement India’s Right to Education Act, which guarantees free primary education for all children aged 6 to 14. Under the Act, private schools have to reserve seats for poor students, helping underprivileged children access quality education.
Dreaming of pet pigeons and stethoscopes
As Anas walks to school with his sister each morning past sleeping pye dogs and the noisy workshops he left behind, he says he wants to become a doctor so he can help his grandfather, a retired carpenter, who suffers from a chronic cough.
“And my mother said if I finish school, I can have two pet pigeons!” he exclaims. “I want a red one and a white one.”
Anas’s second grade class is held on a bare concrete floor in the hallway of a narrow government school building. He shows off the blackboard, where he’s been practising his eight and nine multiplication tables, rattling off the sums with confidence.
Being back in a school has already raised his expectations of life.
“Government schools are not so good,” he says. “I’ll attend till the fifth grade, but then I want to go to a private school.”
At home, Anas’s mother, Suraiya, describes her torment over forcing her young son to work when the family was desperate, as well as her delight when she walked him back to school on the first day last year.
“We were very happy,” she says. “His face lit up. We only want our children to prosper. We felt really guilty making him work but had little choice at the time.”
As for the pet pigeons, his mother doesn’t exactly share his passion.
“They make a terrible mess,” Suraiya says. Then smiling at her school-going son, she adds, “But yes, we did promise.”