My identity, my rights: from child-labourer to child rights activist
In the village in India where I was born and raised, the notion of child rights does not exist. Our parents rear us through their hard work with duty and determination. If a family is able to save money, their children may be able to attend school. More often, however, the children have no option but to join their parents in farming and caring for cattle.
When boys are born, grandmothers stand at the threshold of the home and joyously beat a thali, metal plate, to announce the birth of a male child. In contrast, whenever a girl is born, the women of the family break an earthen pitcher at the entrance of the house. This act is also performed when there is a death in the family, and signifies to neighbors and village folk sadness that the child has been born a girl. The difference between a boy and a girl, and their respective value in home and by society, is clearly marked from the beginning.
Saved from servitude
I am the son of a father who once borrowed money from his landlord, who in return obliged him and my family to serve as bonded labourers. When I was five years old, before I could understand why I was compelled to work as a labourer, I was toiling on the landlordís farm. I worked with animals and crops, and wondered why I did not go to school like other children. Three years later, a group of activists of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) were traveling from village to village. Through outreach efforts to raise awareness about education and their campaigning against child servitude, they met me and other child labourers. Hearing them speak was the first time I realized that my childhood was being wasted, and that there were people who cared about saving it.
After getting to know our situation, the activists diligently worked to free us from bonded labour and child servitude. It was a difficult task, as neither our landlords nor our parents were prepared to consider that children had rights, or that there was anything wrong with child labour. At first, my parents shunned any kind of dispute. After much effort, however, the activists of Bachpan Bachao Andolan persuaded them to press for my release from servitude, and they also exerted pressure on the landlord to free me from service. Because of their dedication, I was eventually liberated.
From education to action
After leaving bonded servitude, I went to the Bal Ashram, a child rehabilitation home in Rajasthan, devoted to educating and training liberated bonded labourers. From the moment I arrived at Bal Ashram, I understood what child rights are. For the first time I observed and realized that here was a place where childrenís voices are heard, their opinions considered, and decisions made after taking their opinion into account. There was a Panchayat (assembly) of child members who represented the studentsí interests and concerns in meetings with the managers and instructors. Gradually, through our teachers and the other children at Bal Ashram, I came to understand there are laws to promote and protect children like us. I learned that these laws not only apply in India, but also throughout the world. Through these laws the rights of children have been articulated, and it is the collective responsibility of all to implement the standards that the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other child rights instruments set forth.
During my education and training at Bal Ashram, I took the initiative to talk about child rights in my school and surroundings. After being freed from bonded labour I was eager for education and also to help spread awareness about the challenges facing children like me. The local public school where I studied charged a fee of 100 rupees. I had read that public schools are supposed to be free. I raised this issue to a local magistrate and demanded adequate action. A petition was put to the Jaipur Court, the high bench of the state of Rajasthan where I live. The court decided that the school was obliged to return the money to the parents. My case was cited by the Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission, and now in the state of Rajasthan schools are prohibited from taking money from parents. Recently, when I was involved in the action of liberating bonded child labourers from zari, or gold thread, factories together with the activists of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, I observed how callous the conduct of government officials was with the liberated children. When I asked them to follow the rules in the Convention, they appeared ignorant that such rules exist.
Access and implementation
In India, to even have a chance of realizing child rights you must first be recognized by the law. This means that a childís own identity is the most significant factor in the cause of child rights. Knowing this, I encouraged children from Dausa and Alwar districts to claim their rights, and during birth registration campaigns, I assisted more than 500 children to formally register with the Government. Having a birth registration gives children rights both now and in the future.
Twenty years after the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there is still little awareness of child rights in India, either among common people and even in many government organizations working for child rights. Although the Government of India has taken an initiative to safeguard child rights by setting up the Child Rights Protection Commission, its impact is yet to fully felt. I believe that through the efforts of activists working for child rights all over the world, pressure must be exerted on the governments of the signatory nations on the Convention on the Rights of the Child to meet their obligations to children. Awareness must be raised on this issue, and countries must be made accountable for active implementation of child rights.
Om Prakash Gurjar was born in Dwarapur village of Alwar district, Rajsthan, to a family of bonded labourers. For many years, he was forced to work on the farm of the landlord as a bonded labourer. After being liberated with the help of Bachpan Bachao Andolan in 2002, he was educated and trained at Bal Ashram. Om Prakash has helped liberate many of the children of his village from child servitude and helped them enrol for school. He has emerged as an unparalleled warrior for child rights and was awarded the International Child Peace Prize in 2006. At present, he is a young Bachpan Bachao Andolan activist and a student in the 11th grade.
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