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.
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.