The Right to Education Act became law in 2010 and, with it, all Indian children from ages 6 to 14 became entitled to free and compulsory education. But can we say that this right has been realised? Unfortunately the answer is “No”. We see young children working in shops, hotels, even in factories producing fire-crackers. In rural areas they herd cattle, or work in brick kilns. Many young girls of school-going age are busy at household chores in their in-laws’ homes. We cannot say that we have overcome the problems of child labour, child marriage, or of school-age children being kept out of school, despite very good laws to protect children’s rights.
Here I will try to explore some of the reasons why families resist such laws, based on my experiences as a teacher who often has to negotiate with the family on behalf of the child.
As an outcome of the Right to Education Act, every child has the right to attend the nearest school, irrespective of whether that school is a government school or not, aided or unaided. There is also a provision to reserve 25% of seats in private and unaided schools for children belonging to the economically and socially deprived sections. The Education Department of Maharashtra went a step further in April 2016 by bringing in the Education Guarantee Card for children from families that move from place to place during the year for their livelihood. The card guarantees a child admission to a school at her new place of residence, and it records her educational history. However what remains to be seen whether such provisions actually reach everyone for whom they are meant.
I work at the Zilla Parishad Primary School in Dodadgaon in Jalna District. There are a large number of farm labourers in our village, who work mostly on sugarcane farms. Among the many students from such families are two sisters, Ashwini and Deepali Shinde, studying in the 5th std of our school. They have been enrolled here right from the 1st std. Every year they would come to school regularly from March to September, but disappear after Diwali. This is the time when the sugarcane harvest season begins. Like many others from the village, their family too would go to other villages and neighbouring districts looking for work. During such periods Ashwini and Deepali would help with the farm work or keep a watch on the harvested crop, from their temporary shelters.
During these periods of migration, the girls never went to school in the places to which the family had moved. This meant they usually missed around six months of school every year. Whenever they came back, their teachers would scold them for falling behind in their studies. Some teachers even punished the girls with beatings. This year, they arrived in my class, the 5th std. I was determined that they should not miss school, and also wanted to get them interested in learning. I made up my mind not to scold them or beat them, but to put them at ease and make them feel welcome.
As they had missed school so frequently, Ashwini and Deepali could not read, write or do simple arithmetic with any confidence. I focused my efforts on their progress. I introduced reading exercises for the entire class, during which I would share funny stories. This helped get the two sisters interested in coming to class. Nowadays they are more confident while reading aloud in class or solving problems on the blackboard.
Meeting their parents, I went over the reasons why children needed to be in school during their formative years. I told them about the Right to Education Act, and urged them to take advantage of the free education offered by the state. I pointed out that if the girls were educated, they would not have to depend on manual labour in future, and could hope to be employed in better jobs. I also explained about the Education Guarantee Card.
A positive outcome was that the parents are now convinced of the importance of educating their daughters. I also let them know them how well the girls were doing in school, and how involved they were in all the activities. The girls’ mother has now decided to stay back in the village during the coming harvest season, to ensure they stay in school and to make up for the lost time. If in future they have to move to another village, she has promised to get an Education Guarantee Card.
I’m happy to see Ashwini and Deepali attending school regularly these days. Their classmates, who used to stay away from them, have now become friends. In any case, I change the seating arrangements regularly to ensure that all students interact and are friendly with each other, as some tend to stick to the same few companions otherwise.
Another vexed issue is that of children working to support their families, in rural as well as urban areas. Children work at brick kilns, in restaurants and glass-work units, as well as in dangerous fireworks factories. The Prevention of Child Labour Act, 1986, prohibits people from employing any child below the age of 14. The Act further lists occupations that are considered hazardous for children to work in, and there is are provisions not only to fine but also to jail those who break the law. But despite all this, the truth is that the Act is not implemented in the way it needs to be, on the ground.
Sadly, it is often the parents who insist that children work to help the family. Poverty makes it necessary for all members to contribute in whatever way they can. In some cases, children are taken to the family’s fields to work, to avoid having to hire labour. Trying to persuade parents against this practice is difficult. They say, “We cannot afford to hire labourers, so all of us, including the children, work on the farm. If you can, then you too may join us!”
Often we see that the children want to go to school instead of working in the fields. The parents resort to hiding their school bags and refusing to give them snacks for their tiffin break. But some children still come, without their bags and tiffin-boxes. The school serves a mid-day meal anyway, and I never scold these determined students for not bringing their school books.
I would like to give another example of how we have to negotiate with parents for change. Our village, Dodadgaon, provides sugarcane to several sugar factories in the area. After harvesting the cane, the workers transport it to the factories in their bullock carts. A husband-wife pair is considered ideal for this job. Locally, such a pair is called “koyta”. The husband drives the bullock cart while the wife sits atop the pile of sugarcane, keeping watch. She throws down the sugarcane once they reach the factory. A family in our village got two children who were cousins married, as they were falling short of such a “koyta”! These children were in the 7th and 8th std, respectively. The marriage took place in great secrecy, without anyone from the village getting to know of it until later.
This harvest season, the parents took this newly married couple along with them to the factory. The children were not used to such heavy physical labour. Both of them are now suffering from back problems, and have become weak. The girl, barely in her teens, has been robbed of her childhood, bogged down as she is with the responsibilities of marriage and housework. Every day, she has to cook for the family. I feel distressed at the situation of these children. Yet the family is rejoicing, as they have earned close to Rs 90,000 this harvest season. I cannot but feel that they will have to spend this money on medical care soon. The two children have also stopped coming to school. I am currently trying my best to bring them back to their classes.
People living in urban areas imagine that the practice of child marriage has been eradicated. But this is simply not true. It is common to marry off girls and boys to each other before either is of legal age. Parents are eager to get their daughters married early. Communities still largely believe that it more important for girls to be married than to be educated. Fear of public outrage and legal repercussions means that such marriages are often performed in secret, with only a few close relatives present. There are instances where the marriage is conducted immediately, at the very first meeting between the families.. Sometimes the village chief and other prominent citizens, too, back such marriages instead of stopping them. It becomes very difficult when community leaders, who are expected to uphold the law, themselves break it. This only makes it that much easier for the general public to ignore such breaches.
In 2014, admirable work was done to stop the practice of child marriage in Jalna, when Nutan Maghade, who is now with Vidya Pradhikaran, Pune, was posted here for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan project. Maghade Madam mobilised people from different government departments such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, Women and Child Welfare, Education, the Law Board, and others, to come together and a team was formed under the leadership of Prerana Deshbhratar, then District CEO, that successfully halted 35 child marriages.
We would visit villages and try to change people’s thinking. “Do not get girls married before they turn 18, and boys before they are 21!” we said. “They are not physically or mentally ready to take on the responsibilities of marriage before that. If girls have children at an early age and do not have the physical maturity to care for the child, it could be dangerous for both mother and child. Let children enjoy their childhood. Let them study and play, let them first become financially independent, and only then think of getting them married.” These messages were disseminated through street plays, marches, lectures by doctors, and so on.
Now villagers have started informing us if such a marriage is about to take place clandestinely. We reach the venue and stop the marriage, with appropriate legal help. On one occasion, we were successful in halting the marriage of a girl student, that was to take place at the first meeting between the two parties. Today, having scored 75% in her Board exams, she is studying in college and dreams of joining the police force.
Such girls need society’s help and support. We have all the requisite laws to stop practices like child marriages and child labour, besides those that guarantee children’s right to education. But it is not enough simply to enact such laws or even to implement them mechanically. The real need is to understand the children and their parents, and to address their problems.
Blog: Neeta Arsule- Tambe, Assistant Teacher, Dodadgaon Zilla Parishad Primary School, Ambad, Jalna District
Translation & editing: samata.shiksha team