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India: Project helps child labourers return to school

© UNICEF India/2005
Students at a school for former child labourers in Tamil Nadu, India. Kavitha, age 10, used to work at a match factory before returning to school.

By Radhika Srivastava

DHARMAPURI DISTRICT, Tamil Nadu, India, 26 May 2005 – Their young hands should have held pencils and crayons. Instead, they touched deadly chemicals in matchbox factories, handled worms in silk farms, or were scalded by hot tea while serving customers in tea stalls. Instead of going to school, these child labourers lost precious months or years of their childhood earning paltry wages to support their families.

No longer. In the state of Tamil Nadu, the UNICEF-supported National Child Labour Project (NCLP) has helped over 3,600 children out of child labour and into school, restoring their childhoods and giving them the opportunity to start dreaming of a life ahead.

Ten-year-old Kavitha started working in a matchbox factory when her father, the family’s only breadwinner, passed away.  “All I knew was I would be paid Rs. 30 ($0.70) for a day’s work. I had no idea what I would do. All that mattered was that I would be paid,” she said. 

In the factory, Kavitha was made to grind a highly combustible mixture used for making matches. “My hands were in constant contact with the mixture. Within a few months, they began to turn black,” she says.

© UNICEF India/2005
Shabiyullah, six, and his mother. After leaving the tea shop, Shabiyullah has completed five years of education in just three years.

The NCLP pulled her out of the factory and enrolled her in a special ‘bridge’ school in Palacode, Tamil Nadu. She now has co-students instead of co-workers. The blackness of her hands remains, but her teachers say she has “exceptionally good handwriting” and that “she is very bright”.

Kavitha is quickly making up for lost time.  In order to join a regular school by the time she is ready for grade eight, she is accelerating through her classes. 

NCLP schools encourage children who may have lost a few years due to late enrolment to recover the lost ground and join regular schools in age-appropriate grades. A 12-year-old will enter regular school in grade six and a 14-year-old in grade eight. This completes their mainstreaming and ensures that no child “feels odd” for being “over age”, says N. Saravanan, NCLP project director in Dharmapuri.

Difficult lives

The project seeks to help many children whose childhood was taken from them by adversity. Six-year-old Shabiyullah is one of them. Shabiyullah started work as a helper in a roadside tea stall in Dharmapuri after his father fell terminally ill. He often worked 10 hour days, earning Rs. 10 ($0.20) a day. On many occasions tea spilled on his hands, scalding his skin within seconds.

Since he came to the NCLP school, both his physical and emotional scars have healed. The burn marks are only barely visible. Shabiyullah has completed five years of education in just three years. His teacher is full of praise for him. “He is a quick learner and should be able to join a formal school in grade six next year.”

The mere mention of his past makes Shabiyullah’s smile disappear. But it returns quickly. “I don’t think I will ever go back there again. Now I can read and write better than the owner of that tea shop,” he said, causing his fellow students to break into laughter.

© UNICEF India/2005
Students at a school supported by the NCLP project pause from their studies to enjoy a quick song and dance break.

Joyful learning

In order to restore the children’s childhoods, the schools incorporate many extra-curricular activities into their curricula. There is hardly any blackboard teaching, and learning is an interactive process in these schools. “We encourage students to sing and dance and also take part in drama. This helps them to bury their trauma and increases their self-confidence,” says a teacher.

Most of the former child labourers who have been integrated into regular schools belong to families whose financial difficulties prompted them to send their children to work instead of school. But in supplementing the family income, the children often ended up in dangerous and demanding jobs.

With persuasion, many parents begin to understand the value of education. Shabiyullah’s mother says she regrets not having sent him to school earlier. “I am determined to see my kids study.” NCLP provides a stipend of Rs. 100 ($1.20) per month to a child labourer who stops work and starts going to school, to help counter their parents’ fear of losing income.

Not all parents are easily convinced. For Kavitha, convincing her mother to let her attend school was difficult. Her mother has relented but wants her to demonstrate that it makes more sense to go to school than to the factory. “I want to study hard and become a doctor… I will prove it,” she says with tears in her eyes.

Aditi Menon-Broker contributed to this story.



Related links

Child protection: Child labour

UNICEF India: Too busy working to go to school

Girls’ Education: Child labour and exploitation

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