In 2015, when the family of 17-year old Tajmira Khatun decided to marry her off, their decision was considered par for the course. Tajmira had five other siblings, the parents were poor and her marriage would reduce the burden on the family’s meagre resources. But, Tajmira’s reaction was anything but par.
She flatly refused to get married. All too often, child marriages led to child trafficking. Even child labour cases often resulted in abuse and trafficking.
But when her family continued to put pressure on her, she reached out to a children’s group called “Ajker Surjya” (Today’s Sun) that worked towards putting an end to child marriages, child labour and child trafficking in Sarberia Agarhati Gram Panchayat area of North 24 Parganas district’s Sandeshkhali. Together, they approached the Gram Panchayat to seek justice. The Panchayat members eventually convinced her parents to give up the idea.
Four years later, Tajmira is now a part of Ajker Surjya and, last month, Sarberia Agarhati became one of the 22 Gram Panchayats (out of a total of 2.5 lakh in the country) to win the Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj’s coveted “Child-friendly Panchayat Award” for 2019. It is also the first one to receive this honour in West Bengal.
How children showed the way
Child trafficking, especially among girls, is one of the most intractable problems in areas afflicted with severe poverty. Often, it all starts with child marriages. But, in Sarberia Agarhati, children aged between 14 and 18 years have been able to eliminate this malaise. Trained by the government, they keep a constant watch over all the children in the area and raise the alarm when something is amiss.
Tajmira often sits with the other members of the group in the dining space of Sarberia High School, going over the list of homes they intend to visit. They discuss the ways to prevent child marriage, trafficking and to create awareness on immunisation and child rights.
“With the help of the group, I successfully thwarted my early marriage. Now, I am part of the group. We keep vigil in the village for traffickers or unknown faces. We have a network of children who inform us about school dropouts or if a family is secretly planning to marry off their daughters before the age of 18. We also visit households, campaigning for immunisation, institutional deliveries,” says Tajmira.
Tajmira and the group’s effort are bearing fruit. What was once a hub of child trafficking, child labour and child marriages in West Bengal, has seen a dramatic change. Seventeen villages under the Sarberia Agarhati Gram Panchayat are now free of trafficking, early marriage, child labour. What’s more, there is 100 per cent immunisation and institutional delivery (see box). What brought about this change were the children of this area who relentlessly battle these ills on a daily basis.
The children’s group started in 2004. Earlier this area was infamous for traffickers, and child marriages were rampant. Children were taken to different parts of India including Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra -- often as part of domestic helps,” says Sheikh Sahajahan, the Panchayat Pradhan.
There are several groups now. Children aged between 14 and 18 are part of these groups and each group consists of around 15 to 20 members. Their primary task is to identify children who appear to have gone missing — say, either they have stopped attending school, or if a girl child has simply gone missing. In addition, they visit each household and inquire about children. If they find someone missing or engaged in child labour, they directly report to the Panchayat office or the Dhagagia Social Welfare Society (DSWS), a partner NGO of Save The Children.
The children have given proper training on how to deal with such issues. They have been told about child rights and how to protect them. They have been trained in such a way that they do not bat an eyelid before calling the Superintendent of Police or the Officer-in-charge of a police station.
According to government sources, the initiative to form children’s groups in Sandeshkhali and Canning areas began in 2014 with the help of NGOs. After its success, the initiative to form similar groups was replicated in different districts of the state and even in slum areas of Kolkata.
Children rescued from various parts of India and school dropouts were given special training by NGOs and integrated with local schools and children groups. The children have their own network and work closely with local police and Panchayat. Children are also part of the village level child protection groups, which have local teachers, Panchayat members and police officials as members. Representatives of children participate in monthly meetings of Child Protection Committees (CPC), apart from holding frequent meetings among themselves.
“We have issued guidelines to form CPCs in 2014. It is an ongoing process and we routinely evaluate the works of CPCs. The award comes as a recognition of our effort," says Shashi Panja, state Women and Child Development and Social Welfare minister. "Save the Children has been piloting various interventions with DSWS... We acknowledge the support of the Directorate of Child Rights and Trafficking, Government of West Bengal in this process," says Chittapriyo Sadhu, Deputy Director, Save the Children.