How A Determined 15-Year-Old From A Rag Picking Community Is Finding Hope In Education

By Mridula Narayan:

A first generation school-goer from a rag picking community finds hope in education.

Ritu (name changed) was gasping for breath as she entered the room where I was waiting to meet her. She quickly came and sat beside me, saying, “Namaste didi,” to which I joyfully responded with the same greeting.

As she sat there, her gleaming eyes were fixed on me and I could tell that she had a story that she was longing to share. It took me a few seconds to realise that I was supposed to begin the conversation. So I immediately asked her,”Whats your name? How old are you?” In a valiant voice, she replied, “My name is Ritu and I’m 15 years old.” Little did I know, at that moment, that I was about to hear the story of a girl who has lived a childhood that I would never want to live.

Ritu’s family migrated from Uttar Pradesh to settle in a slum in Shadipur, New Delhi almost a decade ago. The people living in this slum were once identified as ‘untouchables’ because of their livelihood as rag-pickers and beggars. Day and night, parents and children would be out on the streets picking up waste or begging for money.

From the age of four, Ritu, like all the other children in her community, used to wake up at 5 am and go out on the streets to beg and pick up rags till late in the night. Education, knowledge and skills were never part of her life. At the age of seven, she was introduced to the non-formal education centre which World Vision India started in her community. And two years later, she got enrolled in a regular school. “When I was first sent to school, I hated it. Other children used to laugh at me and make fun of me. But World Vision India staff kept telling me not to stop going to school and then slowly I began liking it,” said an elated Ritu.

Now Ritu begins her day with hope. She goes to school in the morning at 7 am and returns home around 2 pm. She studies until evening and then goes out with her parents to help them in rag picking and begging. Once she returns home, she helps her mother in cooking and other household chores.

According to the Census Survey of India 2011, in Delhi, out of the total workforce, children aged 5-14 years numbered over 26,000. In Delhi, child labour is concentrated predominantly in unorganised manufacturing and informal service sectors.

Unfortunately, Ritu still has to go to beg and pick rags after school every day. But what has changed is that she, like any child, can study in school and achieve her ambitions. “A teacher,” exclaimed Ritu, in an excited voice, when I asked her what she wants to become after she completes her education.

Child labour, in any form, deprives children of their childhood, their talents and basic rights. Economies that don’t respond to child labour are pushing children, families and their communities to a bleak future. Measures for equitable access by bridging gender and social gaps and by addressing the barriers that prevent children from accessing education are essential for addressing child labour and give hope to millions of children.

Between 2009 to 2017, World Vision India’s Delhi Child Restoration Project has helped 242 street children get enrolled in open school and 996 working children get enrolled in regular school. And 655 children below five years have received early childhood care and development. The project first started creating awareness on the importance of education, rights of children, hygiene, sanitation, gender, health issues, etc. through street plays, family visits, group discussions, counselling, movie shows, etc. At the same time, the team had networked with government schools close by and also private schools. The project team helped street children who didn’t have birth certificates in acquiring them.