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On the side of the children

Access to education, Child Labour, Community Schools

Across five states, Bal Bandhus fight for child rights, often standing up to Naxals in the process.

In nine remote, conflict-ridden blocks of five states, a cadre of young people specially selected and trained for their leadership qualities and commitment to child rights are ensuring that children go to school as mandated by the Right to Education Act, anganwadi centres nurture infants, teachers actually teach and food meant for mid-day meals is not siphoned off. One of them, a 19-year-old tribal girl in Andhra Pradesh, stood up fearlessly to the Naxals when they were stopping distribution of food to children.

They are the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights’ (NCPCR) defenders of child rights or Bal Bandhus (BB) and their work is supported by the Prime Minister’s Office. A three-year pilot programme, the Bal Bandhu scheme was launched in December 2010 in Naxal affected blocks of Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. In charge of the 20 Bal Bandhus in each block are their mentors β€” two resource persons, who have worked in Naxal affected areas on child rights issues or with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

Just 19 to 30 years of age, BBs work closely with the community and have been able to form groups of Bal Mitras (friends of the child) as well as mahila sangathans (women’s groups) to help them reach the community. It is this collective of people from the community who are able to talk to headmasters when schools don’t function properly or uniform money is not distributed to students. They are able to cut through the corruption and red tape to get admissions and procure transfer certificates without paying a bribe.

They have an awesome range of responsibilities and maybe just a cycle to take them around from village to village. It is they and their supporters who are able to persuade parents to allow their children to study and not be pushed into work. They get the community to write letters to the mukhia for allotment of land for school buildings and ensure that caste and community barriers are overcome and children eat midday meals together.

Different challenges

For Ashok Singh, 19, Bal Bandhu of Rohtasgarh panchayat in the heart of Naxal affected territory in Bihar, the biggest challenge was in providing a school for girls. Ashok met community members and created awareness on child rights. When Sunita Kumari, a 14-year-old who had never been to school, met Ashok and expressed interest in education, he met her parents and tried to persuade them to send her to the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya which had residential school facilities. They, however, were keen to get her married. Along with Bal Mitras and influential members of the community, the parents were told about the illegality and hazards of an early marriage. After persuasion, the parents relented and she was sent to a Residential Bridge Course facility for upgrading her knowledge so that she can join a regular school. Though just 19 years, after just 13 months as a Bal Bandhu, Ashok is confident and loves the new respect and status he has in the community.

The 177 Bal Bandhus have so far been able to enrol 8,633 children into schools, made 594 schools and 458 anganwadis functional, and registered 1,797 children into residential bridge courses and Kasturba Gandhi Ballika Vidyalayas. In addition, 7,539 academically weak children have been provided coaching support.

There are innumerable examples of the efficacy of the Bal Bandhus. There is the story of the seven children from Chhattisgarh who were working in a juice factory in Andhra Pradesh and were reunited with their families thanks to the sarpanch who became proactive after interaction with the Bal Bandhus. Mohammed Wazir Ansari, another Bal Bandhu of Nunpharwa panchayat, was also able to rescue a dozen children from child labour and send them to school. Five of them were employed by a shopkeeper for packing tobacco. When Mohammed spoke to the shopkeeper, he maintained the children were all members of his family and he was merely utilising their services. The children would hide every time he approached the shop. Finally he managed to speak to the children and got the names of their parents and their villages. He then spoke to the parents and rescued the children.

Improving the system

Even while motivating parents to send their children to school, the Bal Bandhus have directed their attention to making schools fully functional and ensuring all teachers took classes. In Khaira block, Jamui, Bihar, an informal teachers’ forum has been formed and meets every month to discuss how to take the programme forward. According to Sunil Kumar, assistant teacher at Goli Primary School, Goli panchayat, β€œIt always helps to discuss the problems. When I joined, only 24 of the 75 students enrolled would attend school. Now with the help of the Bal Bandhus, this number has increased to 50.”

Another equally important benefit of the Bal Bandhu Scheme is that in an area where Naxals are active, these young and highly motivated defenders of child rights are preventing children from going astray and joining the Naxals. Understanding the power of education, many of them are opting for higher education. Others, encouraged by the respect they are getting as Bal Bandhus, want to become teachers!

The Hindu, 04 February 2012

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