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New programme brings child labourers back to school in Bihar

By Alistair Ingi Gretarsson

NALANDA DISTRICT, Bihar, India, 25 October 2010 – Wearing a clean, navy-blue school uniform with a sky-blue shawl draped over her shoulders, Khaushaliya Kumari, 14, is sociable and relaxed as she goes through her daily routines. Khaushaliya and 46 other girls staying at the Residential Bridge Centre, or RBC, wash their own clothes and dishes, and are in charge of cleaning up the classroom where they all both sleep and study.

VIDEO: UNICEF reports on special training programmes that help former child labourers enter the school system in India's eastern state of Bihar.  Watch in RealPlayer


RBCs such as the one in Nalanda district, located in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, are special training programmes that help former child labourers enter the school system. Here, children who have never been to school before, or who have dropped out early, get the space and support they need to be integrated back into the general school system at a level that is appropriate to each child’s age.

Khaushaliya smiles shyly when asked what her life was like before she arrived here. “Every day, after doing my morning chores at home, I would go and carry baskets of coal till the evening,” she says. “Unloading coal from the truck was always difficult. Sometimes I cut my hands.”

Positive trends, but challenges remain

The trend in education in India is positive, with the number of out-of-school children between the ages of 6 and 14 declining in recent years. And the introduction of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act of 2009 means that all children in India are legally guaranteed their right to quality primary education.

© UNICEF India/2010/Gretarsson
Khaushaliya Kumari, 14, in the Residential Bridge Centre in Nalanda district, located in the eastern Indian state of Bihar.

Luckily for Khaushaliya, the RTE Act also states that even older children who have missed out on school still have the right to get the equivalent of eight years of quality education.

The challenge now is to ensure that every remaining out-of-school child is not only enrolled in elementary school but also completes at least eight years of child-centred, child-friendly education.

Reaching the most marginalized

Khaushaliya and her family belong to one of the most socially excluded and economically disadvantaged communities in Bihar. Mostly landless labourers, families in her community are forced to get by on a very meagre income.

© UNICEF India/2010/Gretarsson
Former child labourers in the Residential Bridge Centre in Nalanda district, in India's eastern Bihar state, where they receive special training to help them enter the school system.

With nine children to support, Khaushaliya’s father, Jakhar Manji, spends much of his time working in construction in the far-off city of Delhi. In addition, Khaushaliya’s entire family earns day wages for the back-breaking labour of loading and unloading coal for transport.

Forced by her circumstances to contribute to the family’s income, Khaushaliya was unable to go to school. But now, thanks to the RBC and the innovative teaching methods being introduced here, she has the opportunity to enter into the formal school system and to complete her elementary education – including the learning she may have missed when not attending school.

“Before this, my life was very difficult,” says Khaushaliya. “I did not have time to even sit and rest. Now I study. I play. I do a lot of things.”

Innovative methods

UNICEF is working with the State Government of Bihar to introduce a new system of learning to the RBCs that will soon be implemented across the state. These ‘special training’ courses – known as Vertical Competency Based Learning (VCBL) – provide the foundation to meet the provisions of the RTE Act within the next five years, reaching all out-of-school children with the necessary on-site support required to succeed and complete their education.

Like Khaushaliya, many other children at the RBCs have been engaged in hard labour, or in domestic work. Arriving with highly varying levels of academic competence, it is important that they receive the individual support they need to make those first, most crucial steps.

The child-centred VCBL approach gives each child the opportunity to develop at his or her own pace. Each student works through a series of lesson cards; by the end of 11 months, each has the chance to achieve the academic competence of Class V in key subjects. As a result, once these children transition to the mainstream school system, they are far more likely to stay in school and complete their elementary grades.

Towards a brighter future

“It’s a big programme, and it will take a long time to reach all of the children,” says Arshad Raeza, a local teacher who has worked on setting up this system here and has provided academic support to the teachers at the RBC in Nalanda.

“But social change is happening,” he adds. “I heard one girl say she wants to be District Magistrate! Their thinking is changing, and their ambitions are growing.”

Khaushaliya’s teacher, Suman Kumari, also says she has seen the change in how the girls who come here think about their futures. “Many of the girls now want to be teachers or social workers,” she notes. “But some of their dreams are so big that I pray to the gods that they are realized.”



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