As Punam awaits her turn, her eyes are glued to the graceful movements of her dance teacher at Tears (Train, Educate and Rehabilitate Socially), an institute for the intellectually challenged. Then, as she is called to perform to a popular Bollywood song chosen for the institute’s annual day function, the diminutive 11-year-old’s face breaks into a smile. Quietly she takes her position and begins to sway to the music. Her movements are not always in sync with the beats. But instead of rebuke, Punam receives appreciation from her teacher.
“Punam has shown tremendous improvement in the six months that she has been here. Considering she had never been to any school, her response to studies and dance has been very encouraging. We are hopeful she will be able to complete her education now that she is here,” says Shipra Saxena, Vice-Principal at the Agra-based institute.
Statistics show that here, one in four children is out of school. In particular, those with special needs form the largest out-of-school group. A recent Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan study found 3,417 children with disabilities had no access to education in Agra.
Punam, too, would have been without education in her village in Agra district had it not been for the Bal Mitra Gram (BMG) initiative. Launched by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s Children’s Foundation (KSCF) under the aegis of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the intervention aims to ensure that every child is protected, healthy and enjoys the right to education.
It is doing this by making villages free of child labour and getting children to school. At the village, the children participate in decision-making processes through the Bal Panchayat (children’s parliament) with the help of youth and women’s groups.
In Agra district, the intervention in nine villages steered by its partner, the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE), has managed to increase enrolment of children aged 6 to 14 in government schools by 15 per cent over a period of seven months. At these villages, all children up to the age of 14 go to school and there is a community ban on child labour and child marriage. Additionally, 90 children have been admitted to anganwadis.
According to census data, the district has a high incidence of child labour with about 40,000 children engaged in various forms of formal and informal work. Children in the 6-14 age group are some of the most vulnerable to child labour and child marriage. This is why CURE first undertook a survey of the villages to map the out-of-school children and understand the socio-economic conditions of the families in Lakhanpur, Maghtai, Ladamada, Amarpura, Vilasganj, Mahal, Kalwari, Doretha and Nagla Jaupura. The survey revealed that of the total of 7,335 people in the 1,534 households surveyed, children comprised 16 per cent of the population.
Stopping child labour
It further found that of the 229 children aged between 6 and 18 years, 67 were dropouts. 44 had never gone to school and 10 were engaged in some form of labour. “Any child out of school is potential child labour and vulnerable to child marriage. Girls and boys would drop out for various reasons. So, our focus was to enrol them in school and motivate the parents on the importance of education. Also, linking 251 parents to government schemes to augment their incomes has helped keeping the children out of labour. We are really happy that we have managed to bring all these children to school,” says Rajeev Kumar, CURE, Agra. This feat was achieved by assessing the vulnerability and risks children faced and then engaging the local community, youth and women by forming voluntary watch groups. These groups helped in building a rapport with the community and facilitated home visits for more personalised interaction. It was during one such visit that CURE field facilitator Rekha found Punam. “When I talked to her mother, I realised she was keen her daughter went to school. But after her efforts to get her admitted in a private school failed because of Punam’s disability, she had given up hope,” recalls Rekha.
Similar was the plight of Mithilesh and her son Ranauk. In Ranauk’s case, Rekha was able to enrol him at Sanket Mook Badhir Rajkiya Vidyalaya, the government school for the hearing and speech impaired. The BMG initiative has also reached out to government school teachers. This was not just to engage with them on readmitting drop outs or those out of school but also to improve their teaching pedagogies so that studies become more enjoyable for the children.
Prabha Tiwari, principal of the government primary school in Magtai village, who was one of the first to come on board, says, “It is important for us to know more about how we can retain the children. One of the ways is to make education fun for them. We are using the projector given to us by the BMG programme to show films on child rights. We also invite parents for screenings so they too can understand and learn that education is their fundamental right irrespective of economic status.”
Importantly, it has been the children themselves who have sustained the process of identifying and enrolling out-of-school children through Bal Panchayats. The 11-member panchayats, democratically elected in the nine villages, have emerged as articulate collectives. Trained by the KSCF in how to spot missing children and ways to raise their voice for their rights, the Bal Panchayats act as the voice of the children and the village.
Nitesh Kumari, a Class 8 student, is a spunky pradhan of the Bal Panchayat in Doretha village. She and her team have campaigned against child marriage, a problem in her village. Street plays and legal consultations organised by CURE to create awareness on the adverse consequences of such marriages have been held.
Recently, Kumari alerted the women and youth groups in her village about the proposed marriage of five adolescent girls. She and some members of the youth group have visited the families to persuade them against marrying their daughters. They are monitoring the girls and their families closely. “If persuasion doesn’t work, we will call the police to help us stop the marriages. But we won’t allow their lives to get ruined,” says a determined Kumari.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi