I speak up, My Rights, My Choice

15-year-old Althaf, hails from North Madras, a cluster of fishing hamlets that grew into a huge township.

Gowri Sundararajan
Photo of Althaf.
UNICEF India/2019/Sundararajan

25 September 2019

15-year-old Althaf, hails from North Madras, a cluster of fishing hamlets that grew into a huge township. This old locality close to the sea coast is known for its notorious thick population, narrow roads, poor infrastructure, high incidence of crime, fishing harbour, colonial structures and matchbox houses. In one such small match box room lives Althaf, with his father, mother and younger brother.

The locality is close to the sea coast and known for its notorious thick population, narrow roads, poor infrastructure, high incidence of crime, fishing harbor, and colonial structures.
UNICEF India/2019/Sundararajan
The locality is close to the sea coast and known for its notorious thick population, narrow roads, poor infrastructure, high incidence of crime, fishing harbor, and colonial structures,

“My father is jobless and an alcoholic, he has borrowed money from usury. Unable to repay, my mother is forced to work as a sweeper in a school to repay and safeguard my family, this is my plight”, says Althaf.

He is the eldest son and is often pressurized by his mother to bring in some additional income to support the family. Despite this difficult situation, Althaf strongly believes that education is every child’s birthright and all children should be in school and not working.  

Althaf, a bright and an energetic student says, “Education is my birthright, not just mine, but every child’s birthright, hence I refused to work and continue to study”.  Althaf is in 11th grade in Jai Gopal Garodiya higher secondary school, Ennore, Chennai. 

“Education is my birthright, not just mine, but every child’s birthright, hence I refused to work and continue to study”.  Althaf is in 11th grade in Jai Gopal Garodiya higher secondary school, Ennore, Chennai.
UNICEF India/2019/Sundararajan
“Education is my birthright, not just mine, but every child’s birthright, hence I refused to work and continue to study”. Althaf is in 11th grade in Jai Gopal Garodiya higher secondary school, Ennore, Chennai.

Althaf always spoke and fought for the rights of children in his community.  He is a key member of Arunodhaya’s Children’s Sangam (club). Arunodhaya Centre for Street & Working Children, is an NGO working in his area towards elimination of child labour in all forms; protection of child workers and street children who have been victims of abuse and assist in the strengthening and supporting of their families. 

When he joined school after his 10th board exams he noticed few of his friends had not come in. He enquired and found that “During the vacation, my friends went to work as delivery boys for supplying drinking water cans to the commercial units and households. Post vacation, they dint join back school, and continued to work as daily wage laborers to support their family”.  Through Children’s Sangam (club), Althaf took the initiative to speak to his friends and their families on the importance of education. Further he spoke to them about how child labour can ruin their future earning capacity. He has also motivated two other class 10 dropouts to return to school and complete their secondary school education. Today because of his effort even the local companies do not hire children to do such odd jobs.  

“During the vacation, my friends went to work as delivery boys for supplying drinking water cans to the commercial units and households. Post vacation, they dint join back school, and continued to work as daily wage laborers to support their family”.
UNICEF India/2019/Sundararajan
“During the vacation, my friends went to work as delivery boys for supplying drinking water cans to the commercial units and households. Post vacation, they dint join back school, and continued to work as daily wage laborers to support their family”.

While growing up, Althaf has witnessed dramatic events many a time. “Late at night, suddenly, the street lights and power would be switched off, shops hurriedly pulled their shutters down. Much like in the movies, I would hear sounds, engulfed in pitch darkness, of bottles whizzing and crashing. When the lights came back on again, the only evidence of the untoward incident would be broken glass and the occasional puddle of blood. Curiously enough, someone would immediately clean up the mess” says Althaf.  

The depiction of North Chennai as a place for gang wars, drug menace and unclean surroundings is not false. Althaf shares an incident that made him voice for his peers, “Around the corner, an old woman sold snacks and breakfast like idli’s (rice cakes), and a lot of young boys used to take small packets from the old woman. I kept wondering as to what that was and came to know that they were buying drugs. With the help of Children’s Sangam (club), my friends and I went to the police station, to lodge a complaint, but it was of no use. Then we decided to escalate the issue and went up to IAS officer Ms. Nirmala and gave a written petition. We dint have any proof then. To prove to her, we did a spy cam operation and collected proof and shared videos with her. She immediately raided the area and sealed the old woman’s shop and a few more as well. Now my area is under surveillance for issues related to drug misuse”. 

“A lot of young boys were buying drugs from an old woman’s stall. To prove this issue to IAS officer Ms. Nirmala, we did a spy cam operation, the area was raided and sealed. Now my area is under surveillance for issues related to drug misuse”.
UNICEF India/2019/Sundararajan
“A lot of young boys were buying drugs from an old woman’s stall. To prove this issue to IAS officer Ms. Nirmala, we did a spy cam operation, the area was raided and sealed. Now my area is under surveillance for issues related to drug misuse”.

Althaf was widely recognized by his community after this issue. He has been instrumental in enrolling many children in school from his neighborhood. To the best of his capabilities, he ensures that all children in his locality are in school.  Through Arunodhaya, Althaf has undergone trainings under the young facilitator programme and is trained on child rights and issues. He has done many streets plays on issues such as child marriage, “After my training, I have conducted many street plays where we have created awareness on menstrual health, repercussions of early marriage and child labor etc”.

Althaf was widely recognized by his community after this issue. He has been instrumental in enrolling many children in school from his neighborhood. To the best of his capabilities, he ensures that all children in his locality are in school.
UNICEF India/2019/Sundararajan
Althaf was widely recognized by his community after this issue. He has been instrumental in enrolling many children in school from his neighborhood. To the best of his capabilities, he ensures that all children in his locality are in school.

Multi-talented Althaf is a trained frisbee player and has also learnt Parai (traditional drums used in South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, one of the symbols of Tamil culture). In ancient days, this instrument was used as a communication mechanism to convey messages to people. “By playing parai I spread messages around child labor, early marriage, menstrual issues in my school & community” says Althaf.   

There is something about the dark personality of North Chennai that has attracted the filmmakers, not just the filmmakers, guess the feeling is mutual for people like Althaf. He does not want to be a hero just in his community but aspires to become a hero in the south film industry and make meaningful movies as a film director. According to him, “My work is not over yet, I am speaking only to few people in my area, to reach wider audience and spread messages on child rights and issues, I will see you all in the big screens shortly as a director and actor”.

“My work is not over yet, I am speaking only to few people in my area, to reach wider audience and spread messages on child rights and issues, I will see you all in the big screens shortly as a director and actor”.
UNICEF India/2019/Sundararajan
“My work is not over yet, I am speaking only to few people in my area, to reach wider audience and spread messages on child rights and issues, I will see you all in the big screens shortly as a director and actor”.

The right to be protected from harmful work is one enshrined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC), the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. In 1989, leaders from around the world came together to stand for children, agreeing through the CRC that girls and boys aren’t just adults-in-training – they are human beings with their own unique set of rights. Thirty years later, children like Althaf are still aware of these rights, and are willing to fight until all children, in every community, achieve them.