“It is for us, the young and the fierce, to fight for our own children, for future generations, and for a more sustainable nation. My efforts may have very little impact, but doesn’t each drop make a mighty ocean?”
India is home to the largest number of child labourers in the world. Although the government has launched projects to tackle the issue, real progress has been minimal. In 2012, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet approved legislation to prohibit work by all children under the age of 14 and proscribe hazardous work for those under the age of 18. However, this is yet to be passed by India’s Parliament.
In light of this, it has fallen upon the country’s charity sector and general public to take matters into their own hands. Here, a young woman writes for the IPF about her experience being confronted with child labour in her country, as well as her attempts to eradicate the problem.
I still remember when I was perhaps a few months older than 12 years old, rushing out of the huge gates of my school and buying the usual set of two orange lollies – one for me and another for Nanda. Nanda, her parents, and her eight siblings occupied a large portion of the footpath opposite our school in Lenin Sarani, Kolkata. I often watched her sit under a tree with her father, segregating junk or sometimes dismantling electronic items.
One day I asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. She said: “Aami toh toder school e ingriji shekhabo, tui dekhish didibhai!” (I shall be teaching English in your school someday, you’ll see didibhai!).
“Didibhai“ is an affectionate way of addressing an older sister in Bengali, justified by the fact that Nanda was three summers younger than me. Wreathed in the hues of my childish imaginations, my heart dared to believe that someday Nanda would certainly walk through those solemn iron gates of my school as a beautiful English teacher. I believed in her dream.
Time flew by and new priorities replaced my relationship with Nanda. It all seemed very natural – even their sudden disappearance from the footpath one morning. I was 16 then and Nanda slowly became just another name in my life.
With time, as pragmatism crept into my jaded adult heart, Nanda’s dream began to haunt me. I realised with time that she, like millions of others in my country, fell prey to the vicious monster called “poverty”. Nanda was a victim, never by choice but merely by chance, of the harrowing experiences of child labour.
It fell upon me like a lightning strike: children like Nanda do not get the same opportunities that children like me do. Life is unfair to them. Their dreams slowly mingle with the dust and babble of the cities, and are lost forever.
However, what also struck me that day was a realisation that there is so much I could do for children like Nanda. My efforts may have very little impact, but doesn’t each drop make a mighty ocean?
I took my maiden steps while still in school, becoming very active in organising events for underprivileged children, many of whom shared their experiences with me. These included stories of forced labour, domestic violence, and even sexual abuse. It was then that I became extremely sensitive to the cause of child rights.
I believe that beyond age, gender, colour and nationality, a child is an individual, born with equal rights as that of an adult. My involvement with Child Rights and You (CRY), an NGO ensuring that children in India aren’t deprived of their rights, has provided me with the platform to channelise my efforts for the cause in a systematic way.
Working with children and communities brought me face-to-face with the grave issues children deal with on a day to day basis. The issue that perturbs me the most is children forced into labour.
Child labour deprives children of their right to education and takes away the chance for a bright future. In India, one in every three child labourers are illiterate. It leads to an inter-generational cycle of poverty and deprivation. The issue is also closely linked to trafficking, with many children trafficked to be forced illegally into labour.
In 2011, India’s Census revealed that the country had 10.1 million children working as main or marginal workers. Child labour has almost taken the shape of an epidemic, ravaging the lives of thousands of children each year and, therefore, it demands immediate action.
It is essential to completely ban all forms of child labour at policy level and work with communities at ground level to bring out a change in attitudes and address the underlying reasons of this problem.
Every child has equal rights to a happy, carefree and safe childhood. For my young mates out there, seeking to extend a hand in aid for the cause of children’s rights, I have two pieces of advice.
First, empower yourselves. Do this by acquiring more knowledge and being aware so that your actions and demands are not blinded by the impulsiveness of sentiments, but are the result of practical knowledge and experience. Second, extend your unconditional love to children. Make them feel wanted, make them feel important and needed. It is our duty to empower them and to make them believe that they are the bearers of our legacy.
The youth, with its dynamism, ingenious ideas and creativity, with its free spirit to meet challenges and its physical mobility and strength, can in many ways set the wheels of change in motion. It is for us, the young and the fierce, to fight for our own children, for future generations and for a more sustainable nation.
It is our responsibility to be the voice for rights of all children, which extend beyond the barriers of race, gender and economic obstacles.
I hope every little Nanda has the courage to dream big and the strength to achieve it. But more than that, I hope they are given the opportunity and the environment to do so in a protective net, with all their rights upheld.