Varanasi’s weaving community’s children are becoming the bastions of child rights in Uttar Pradesh as they fight against child labour and early marriage.
“It was my dream to train as a lawyer. And today I am studying to become a lawyer,” says Puja Kumari. She beams when she talks about her dreams and her achievements. But it wasn’t so long ago that Puja was out of school and working long hours to help in the family’s weaving business. Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is famous for its traditional handloom weaves. But thanks to the vagaries of globalised economics and treaties under WTO agreements, recent times have seen them starving, at the margins of extreme poverty. The children in this community were the first to suffer–sold, married off early, malnourished and working for up to 16 hours a day–they were nowhere near getting an education.
Seeing the condition of the children, People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) stepped in. They started a series of advocacy and programmatic interventions the end result of which is a sea change in attitudes towards education, early marriage, child labour and the rights of the girl child. One of the pioneering initiatives by them is the Bal Panchayats or children’s parliaments. Puja says that before joining the Munshi Premchand Bal Panchayat in her locality she was unaware of her rights: “I did not know about issues like child marriage and child labour. Now I am fully aware of my rights under the Right to Education. There should be a school within a kilometre. But the nearest school here is located three kilometres away.”
8.4 crore children in India are currently out of school. Child labour accounts for 13% of total workforce in the country. During the recent Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the government came under scrutiny regarding child-related policies particularly those pertaining to child labour and child marriage. The PVCHR’s intervention in Uttar Pradesh is apposite as child rights in Uttar Pradesh hve abysmal records. The state has the highest number of children–2.1 million–engaged in child labour. India also has the highest number of child brides in the world. This is an issue close to the hearts of girls like Pooja who have seen their friends getting married as teenagers and are themselves at high risk of early marriage.
She started a campaign along with two of her colleagues from the Bal Panchayat for raising awareness of child rights in Uttar Pradesh. They named it ‘I will not Cook, I want to get Educated’. “Learning from the Bal Panchayat has enabled us to stand up for our rights. We prevented a minor girl from being sent to her in-law’s place, although we could not stop her marriage. We have taken out awareness rallies about child marriage and now more people are opposing it,” says Pooja. Pooja, currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in Law is a shining example of what girls can achieve if they receive support from their community and family.
Manish Kumar is the president of the Munshi Premchand Bal Panchayat. He says that the inspiration behind starting a children-led initiative like this was to create a forum where the children could voice their concerns and work towards a solution. “When we were young, we would see our parents participate in the Panchayat meetings. If we tried to listen in they would shoo us away and tell us to play. This Bal Panchayat was started in 2004. We meet every month and everyone is given a chance to speak. When PVCHR first started work in this locality only one boy was educated till the tenth standard. Today a lot more young people are going to school.” says Manish.
PVCHR’s wide-ranging advocacy on the issue has seen government officials sit up and take notice of serious issues such as malnourishment and access to education. Today they also run a non-formal education centre for out of school children. They have highlighted the condition of the weavers to the Planning Commission. Slowly but surely, things are turning around for child rights in Uttar Pradesh. With a new crop of aware and enthused young activists like Pooja and Manish, the way forward is full of hope for the children of the weavers’ community in Varanasi.