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“The Injustice Is Absolute And Painful”: Why We Must Fight For Millions Of Indian Children

By Taw Nana:

“Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him,” said Mahatma Gandhi, offering advice on undertaking a new venture. It’s the very question the government could and should have pondered on before imposing any new law, including the Child Labour Amendment (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 2016.

Because, as the statistics point out — and anyone with the faintest idea of social dynamics knows — an overwhelming majority of child labourers belong to the poor and marginalised groups in India.

In July this year, India seemingly legalised child labour by adding to the Act a clause that allows children up to the age of 14 to work in a ‘family enterprises’ or ‘as an artist in an audio-visual entertainment industry’ after school hours and during holidays. Many child rights activists have argued, even protested, against the amendments for valid reasons: there is no specific work timing for the children, and the list of hazardous occupations have been reduced to just “mining, explosives and the occupations listed under the Factory Act”.

I am associated with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an organisation working towards ending sex trafficking and empowering girls and women from communities labelled as ‘freed/ de-notified tribes or ex- criminal tribes’. Many of whom are forced to indulge in traditional occupations, passed on from one generation to the next, which includes prostitution, shoe-making and repair, entertaining people with monkeys and snakes, farming, selling crafted items at traffic signals etc.

When the country was hooked to television celebrating Sindhu’s silver medal in Rio Olympics, a group of activists were gathered in a small room calmly discussing the next move against the law. There were many other similar meetings. Almost throughout, we looked at each other and without even uttering a word aloud, understood and accepted the difficult times ahead. It was a battle fought on behalf of those millions of children, who don’t even know of our existence.

Surprisingly, the voices that were echoed against the amendments in the Child Labour Act, 2016, were just of the selected few activists, intellectuals, and some supporters. And probably, the loud silence that came from the crowd did not even realise the severity of the situation, because seeing ‘chotu‘ work in dhabas, restaurants, hotels, dhobi ghats, slaughter houses, as domestic help, child rearer, in an agricultural field, recycling garbage, at brick kilns etc is probably not something that surprises us anymore. We have stopped questioning and accepted ‘the role they play’ – serving us tea at friends’ or relatives’ house.

And this, when India is chest-thumping for successfully retaining the tag of the strongest growing economy in the world. We, however, chose to remain oblivious to the fact that there are 1,01,28,663 child labourers aged between 5-14 years in our country ( 2011 census). Some of them are also the force behind India’s growing economy. And be assured, we won’t hear their dissents; we won’t hear them fighting back for their right to childhood — as 90 percent of them are from marginalised communities. Most of them have either little to no formal education to understand that the government has imposed a law to make their living conditions from bad to worse.

Child Labour is considered as “the practice of having children engage in economic activity, on part- or full-time basis. The practice deprives children of their childhood, and is harmful to their physical and mental development.” According to UNICEF,  “a child is considered to be involved in child labour activities under the following classification: (a) children 5 to 11 years of age that during the week preceding the survey did at least one hour of economic activity or at least 28 hours of domestic work, and (b) children 12 to 14 years of age that during the week preceding the survey did at least 14 hours of economic activity or at least 42 hours of economic activity and domestic work combined.”

Apne Aap, along with other organisations has been running a campaign called #QuitChildLabour in Change.org. In our letter to the Prime Minister, we have sought the deletion of Section 3 in clause 5 that allows child labour in the family, or ‘family enterprises’ or ‘as an artist in an audio-visual entertainment industry’. Instead, we demanded to add a clause to allocate funds (beyond those taken from employers of child labour) for the restoration of mid-day meals for children, re-opening of the 42,000 schools for poor children that were closed down, and the re-instating of budgets for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan ( Education for All) initiative.

The reason behind our emphasis on deletion of the family business in most cases is that the child does not decide their own future. The decision maker is their family, extended family members. For instance, Vivek from Dharampura (New Delhi) wants to wear a uniform and go to school like other children. But his simple dream remains unfulfilled, as he was born in Singhi community. He is a cobbler at the age of 12 , helping out in the family business. No one in his family has ever entered a school. Similarly, Rani Kumari, aged 12, from Forbesganj (Bihar), feels guilty every time she goes to school, as she is the only one in her family, who is continuing her studies. Her older siblings — three brothers and a sister have all dropped out of school to help their mother in the fields. There are lakhs of Viveks and Ranis across the country. By the time, I, a native of Arunachal Pradesh, graduated to college, I had seen enough faces who dropped out of school as they failed to balance study and work simultaneously. It was too much of a struggle for their little bodies to bear.

The Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE) stated that the primary level drop-out in Arunachal Pradesh is 10.9 percent. And overall, there are 47 million dropouts in primary schools, out of which 2.9 million have never been to schools, as reported by Unesco Institute for Statistics. India has the highest number of ‘out of school adolescents’. Globally, there are about 263 million children who are not in school.

It is not much we are asking for. Allow the children to dream of rainbows, beautiful places, queens, kings, becoming someone important and leading a ‘normal’ life and not one as a slave. Also, it is no longer a matter of debate if the gap between haves and have-nots is ever widening – especially, if one section is bestowed with all the benefits and the already marginalised ones are pushed further to the edge. The injustice is absolute and painful. Karl Marx, an eminent revolutionary socialist and strong opponent of Child labour who once said that the British industries, “could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood too”.

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Image source: Daniel Berehulak/ Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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