Akshat* is a child reporter, and, like a good scribe, when he picks up an issue, he follows it till the very end. The Std V student of a government school in Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh has been campaigning against child labour in the slum where he lives with his family. Recently, he and his friends got to know that their neighbour, a minor called Adhir*, was working in a bangle-making unit at his home. They persuaded Adhir’s parents to pull him out of the unit, and send him to school instead.
Adhir is now attending classes — thanks to the efforts of 12-year-old Akshat and his friends.
“We approached the parents and told them that this wasn’t an age when he should be working. It was his age to study. If he studies now, they could all hope for a better life in future,” Akshat says.
Akshat has been writing about child labour in a children’s magazine being produced by minors living in slums in the town. And the magazine has become a powerful platform against children being employed by the bangle industry and other issues such as sanitation that affect the community.
Child labour has been a long-standing problem in Firozabad, often described as the “suhaag nagari” — or the town for wedded bliss. That is because while it produces all kinds of bangles it specialises in glass bangles worn by brides and other married women.
For decades, poverty-stricken families engaged in giving finishing touches to bangles have been roping in their children in testing the final products and packing them for the market. Working in dingy, ill-lit and cramped spaces, the children lend a helping hand to their parents whose work often entails joining and smoothening the edges of bangles. The children involved may be as young as five and manufacturers have often encouraged the employment of children for they believe that their tender hands apply just the right pressure to the bangles, which can otherwise snap.
Although child labour has been eradicated from the factories, where they once thrived, informal modes continue. This is partly because the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Amendment Rules, 2017, are not clear on the engaging of children in family-run enterprises operating from homes.
But now children from this town have found a voice — the print magazine Balvani-Bacchon ki Awaz , which, while showcasing the creative output of children living in slum colonies, also takes up issues of concern to children and communities. They have in recent times weaned children away from working in ill-ventilated spaces and got them admitted to schools. They have also got their schools better organised and equipped with toilets and water taps, got their surroundings cleaned and convinced parents not to get their underage daughters married.
Of course, the quiet revolution has been some time in the making, under the aegis of the not-for-profit body ChildFund’s Disha Children’s Programme in the region. The programme started in 1994 with regular meetings of youngsters. Children in the 6-14 age group were organised into Child Clubs, while those in the 15-24 age group were made part of Youth Clubs. In every slum, 33-member Child Protection Committees were organised, comprising children, Ward Officers, parents of children, Anganwadi and ASHA workers .
In January 2019, ChildFund teamed up with its local civil society partner Saarthi to train 120 children in the 7-14 year age group living in 30 Firozabad slums on reporting and writing on children’s issues. Besides introducing the children to the basics of writing a report, the training apprised them about relevant laws and mechanisms related to child-protection, and prepared them to identify the existing gaps and to participate in decision-making in matters that concerned them.
Today, these children confidently communicate and voice their concerns on socially relevant issues, through their recently-launched magazine. This 54-page magazine in Hindi showcases the creative talent of the children, while disseminating information and raising concerns on child labour, lack of toilets and child marriages. The journal is financed by ChildFund, under the aegis of their Disha Children’s Programme, and overseen by the Child Clubs.
Reporting and writing in the magazine have brought in new-found confidence in the children who now come together to question and challenge wrong practices they see around them. Pooja*, for instance, worked to get a toilet built in her school after a schoolmate got electrocuted when he stepped out to relieve himself a few months ago. Pooja, a Std VII student at a government school, highlighted the lack of toilets in her school in Balvani and then took the matter up with the local Child Protection Committee. Within three months, the school got its toilet, along with drinking water facilities.
It’s not easy work. Akshat, for instance, had to battle with the establishment to get Adhir admitted to a local school. The school principal refused to enrol Adhir in the relevant grade, saying that he would not be able to cope with the lessons. Akshat approached activists at ChildFund and the Block Education Officer. Citing the Right to Education (RTE) Act, Akshat and his friends ultimately got Adhir admitted to school in the relevant grade in keeping with Adhir’s age.
Gita*, a 12-year-old child reporter and Std V student in a private school, stepped in when she heard that her friend Priya’s* parents were getting their minor daughter married. Gita got together all her reporter-friends from the nearby slums and approached Priya’s parents, to apprise them of the dangers of marrying off their friend so young. The children not only got the parents to call off the wedding, but had Priya admitted to the local government-run school as well.
Printed every six months, Bacchhon ki Awaz has a print run of 900 copies which are distributed to children in all slums and government schools, besides government officials. The 120 reporters of the magazine use their networking skills, liaise with district and block-level officials, and lean on activists to fight for their rights as children, putting whatever they have learnt to practice. It is the beginning of a long journey to turn their town of wedded bliss into truly a blissful place.