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How I’m Fighting Child Labour in Haryana Despite Receiving Death Threats

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By Anju Verma:

There exists an invisible army marching barefoot on the streets of India. It’s true, we all see them daily but fail to notice. There is a teeming force of young peddlers with flowers or balloons or sometimes wash-cloth in their hands, and we ignore their innocent faces every day. The 2011 Census by the International Labour Organisation revealed that 10.1 million children out of the total child population in India between 5-14 years are dragged into child labour. Despite efforts by the government, the statistics are still quite high.

Through my organisation ‘Buland Udaan’  which was founded in 2017,  I have solved 965 child atrocity cases, dragged 696 students out of child labour and enrolled them in schools, stalled 15 child marriages and prevented 10 sexual harassment cases with the most powerful tool in the history of mankind – Education.

Coming from a Daulatpur village in Haryana, a State with a skewed sex ratio and regressive attitudes, I’ve grown up in an environment where children accompany their parents to work – in agricultural fields, brick factories, dhabas.With the helping hand of their children, the labourer who, for instance, picked 20kg cotton, now plucked 50 kg and eventually earned in multiples. In return, they handed over some 10-20 rupees as appreciatory incentives to their kids. 

It was a normal, everyday practice until one day, when I observed that a few of my friends never completed their homework and often lacked lustre, refraining from participating in class. When confronted, the response I heard left me in despair. I heard countless stories of how their parents made them work to earn a living. Once home, my friends would have to participate and contribute to the economic activities of the family apart from completing regular household chores. This kept them occupied and tired, leaving no time to revise lessons taught at school or even go out to play. It was also negatively impacting their attendance at school as they would not have the energy to participate in classroom discussions and activities.

At this age where we can learn and shape our future, this burden of work had stopped the mental growth of my fellow mates. Education is the most important factor for creating a strong workforce in any country and also for its economic development. But these children like me, they had no dreams, no aspirations and no hopes from future. It had to stop. Someone had to intervene. So, I decided to go door-to-door and campaign against child labour and inform them about the importance of education. 

After much investigation and campaigning, I realised that the problem of child labour persisted because even though the parents knew it is ‘wrong’, they didn’t know that it’s a crime that amounts to imprisonment and fine. With a few volunteers helping me in this campaign, I approached the employers – the factory and the farm owners – and made them realise that they have might incur more losses from criminalisation and insult than they can gain by employing child labourers. With nowhere to work, children have no option but to go to schools. 

16-year-old Anju Verma believes that improving quality of education at schools will play a crucial role in eradicating child labour.

With the support from our Sarpanch, Buland Udaan is not only focusing on eradicating child labour but also in improving the quality of education at schools. This silent revolution of ‘Right to Education’ and reclaiming childhood has now spread to Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab covering over 30 villages. This battle wasn’t easy, especially for a 16-year-old girl in a place where girls were not allowed to wear anything except salwar suits, who maintains no eye contact with even her own father or is allowed any opinions at all. But even with a lot of criticism and sometimes, death threats, I decided not to stop.

On 5th December 2018, my efforts were appreciated with the V-Award 2018 by the UN Volunteers India followed by a three-day fellowship where I developed a new perspective about life. This training and recognition not only made me work harder for my campaign, but also gave me immense satisfaction from within. With this appreciation, things are also changing for me in my village. People are more supportive towards my initiative. 

My journey is a perfect example of how you don’t need to be extraordinary or do something big to initiate the change. You are never too small or too weak. Small acts can have huge impacts. To all the social change makers who are willing to transform the world with their small actions, I just have one small message – 

मुश्किलों से भाग जाना आसान होता है,

हर पहलू जिंदगी का इम्तिहान होता है,

डरने वालो को मिलता नहीं जिंदगी में कुछ,

लड़ने वालो के कदमो में जहां होता है ||

Anju Verma was amongst 10 young, passionate change makers who were awarded the V-Awards organised by UN Volunteers India for their phenomenal contributions to society through volunteering. 

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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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