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The Amazing Way These Teenagers In Mumbai Are Fighting Against Child Labour

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A small yet eye-catching poster flutters on the blue cloth lining the Bal Kamgar Virodhi Sangathana (BKVS) stall at PUKAR’s annual exhibition and graduation ceremony. It reads: “Only the worst thief would steal someone’s childhood”. A quote that unfortunately holds true for millions of children across the globe, especially for BKVS, a seven-member group.

Made up of 16-18-year-olds, the BKVS group is part of PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Programme and has recently completed its research on the realities of child labourers in three west-suburban communities of Mumbai. The young researchers also invest a substantial amount of their waking hours working as catering assistants, electricians, garland-makers and sales people.

Their experiences of being employed as children and their association with Prayas – Ek Koshish, an organisation that works in the space of child rights, have perhaps been the catalyst in their choice of topic. Although one could be pragmatic while evaluating their decision of selecting this topic, it takes courage, a whole lot of passion and a sense of impartiality to attempt to study, unlearn and learn about decades of wrongs that you yourself have been at the suffering end of.

All members have either discontinued education or are pursuing it alongside their jobs to support their families, a reality that is not betrayed by their shiny and happy faces. When they came onboard the fellowship, they brought with them an approach dictated by prevention and abolishment of child labour. The research process, however, has made them look at the issue more holistically and recognise its complexities, especially in the Indian context.

Through its research, the group has made an effort to unravel the layers that cocoon child labour and challenge their own notions to see the bigger picture. Investigation of the impact that child labour has on children’s education and their lives has revealed that long working hours leave the respondents with little or no room to pursue studies.

One of the most poignant findings of their study is the ‘circle of poverty’ – with most children’s parents working in the informal sector, the monthly household income hits the ceiling at ₹30,000, not a significant amount for families with a strength of four-seven members. Some households have fewer members due to the death of one or both parents, some have grievously ill members and this exacerbates the financial situation of the family in question.

Such unfavourable conditions force children to drop out of school and seek work in the informal sector. Thus, ending up on the same road as their parents and completing the vicious circle. Unfair wages, abusive bosses and zero leaves add to their woes and have left the members thinking if the circle can be broken, for these respondents, and for themselves.

The findings shown by this study are also echoed by the members of the group. Sunidhi*, 18, goes to school while being employed as a garland-maker, a job she took up a few months back. She says, “I didn’t think I’d have to start working so young. But my family is going through a severe financial crisis and I have no option but to bring money home.” 

The fellowship improved her critical thinking skills, and she is now in a position to intervene when her parents have a spat, and she sees this as a silver lining in her life.

For Raunak*, 16, work became a part of his timetable two years back, and as an electrician, he tries to contribute to the modest family income – he adds to make up for the subtraction that found its roots in his father’s accident and inability to work. Doing research has made him more confident and helped develop a positive outlook to deal with life’s curveballs.

Kasturi*, 18, has been working for the past 10 years and has recently secured a job to manage sales and inventory at a handicrafts store. Her mother (who is HIV positive) and she have had to work extra-hard to repay the loans taken to clear the medical bills left behind after her dad’s demise recently.

Working when she should have been in a classroom proved to be hugely detrimental to Kasturi’s performance in Class 10, and she quit school thereafter. However, the fellowship has made her resuscitate her plan to study further.

She says, “I used to always think that my mother would be embarrassed of me being a ‘10th fail’ but now she talks about me and my research with pride, and that makes me happy. The fellowship has awakened my desire to study further and make her prouder.”

Kasturi’s statement is hugely encouraging in the current climate around child rights because education is an insurance certificate, one that carries with it the promise of protecting future generations of children from exploitation.

*Names changed to protect privacy

Note: India ratified two crucial International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions – Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour and Convention 138 on Minimum Age of Employment only this year. While the move is a definite indicator of progress, it is also a significant marker of how much work still needs to be done for child labourers to have access to better childhoods.

PUKAR is a Mumbai-based research collective; the Youth Fellowship Programme offers Mumbai’s youth, especially those living on the margins, an opportunity to conduct research on a topic that affects them and the community they live in. The fellows, also known as ‘Barefoot Researchers’, are guided through a year-long process rooted in CBPAR (Community-Based Participatory Action Research) and take their findings back to the community to start a dialogue with its members. These stories provide an account of the transformation undergone by these ‘Barefoot Researchers’ during the process of research.

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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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