‘I too was exploited as a child. I pledge to not let this happen to other children.’
Last month, Rajvati, a child protection volunteer and community member in Bharatpur was appointed as an MGNREGA supervisor by the Sarpanch, given her engagement and expertise in working for the children of her community. She was also selected by local police officials to participate in the police-community group meetings called Community Liaison groups (popularly known as Gram Mitra), to bring child protection to the forefront as a joint police-community agenda.
The ongoing pandemic has forced an increasing number of children to labor. In Bharatpur, Sarpanches join hands with local child protection volunteers to drive child labor out of communities.
Rajvati, an active member of a women-led child protection group in Datloti, Deeg in Bharatpur district, prevented six children from being forced into hazardous industries along with the Sarpanch.
As a 14-year-old, Rajvati was forced to leave her education. “As soon as I completed Grade 10, my parents found a suitable groom for me. I had to work, get married and sustain my family (including two children),” she said.
To carve her own identity and give back to her community, Rajvati joined Aangan Trust’s Bharosa Bal Suraksha Samuh: a program through which women volunteers and community members are trained on child protection and prevent harm by supporting children, their families and local police in keeping children safe from all forms of harm, social evils such as early marriage, hazardous work, and trafficking in their community. Rajvati is one of the 600 community members working as women volunteers or child protection volunteers spread across 120 communities based out of Bharatpur.
With 38 percent of its children involved in labor, of which 70 percent is of a hazardous nature, Bharatpur is a hotspot for child labor. It has the lowest sex ratio in Rajasthan, putting young girls at risk of exploitation. Many young girls are trafficked under the facade of marriage. Additionally, there exists a huge gap between actual crime rates and reporting of crime: 99.1% cases of crime against women go unreported.
Rajvati’s growing confidence, enthusiasm and call to action has been due, in large part, to work done in collaboration with the Bharatpur police. To bring child protection to the forefront, it is critical that the community trusts the police force from which they are seeking help. This is especially the case for women and children, whose voices often pass unheard as a result of socio-cultural barriers.
Aangan Trust’s 160 women volunteers are attending Community Liaison Group (CLG) meetings across 16 thanas every month, bringing with them critical data and feedback from the community.
This has allowed women like Rajvati to share their knowledge of hyperlocal data and issues about children and women directly with the police, leading to immediate action and rising community trust in police.
For reporting to increase, building trust and nurturing legitimacy on both sides of the police/citizen divide is the foundational principle between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. The women volunteers as part of the CLG meetings are working towards bridging the gap between the community members and the police system, helping keep safe women and children. They will also focus on listening and addressing grievances of community members and spreading awareness in the process.
“It’s possible to give birth to big ideas from a small seed,” says Rajvati while describing her journey with Aangan. “My ideas about what it means to be a child in this community and stay safe has transformed. Whether they are my children, or someone else’s children, children are innocent and they need protection,” she says.
With access to police systems and knowledge of hyper local data and direct interaction with families on ground, women volunteers’ ideas of addressing community issues have transformed as have their sense of self. They have gained new found confidence, especially in public dealing.
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The village Sarpanch recruited Rajvati as one of the MGNREGA supervisors with an important task of managing attendance of on site workers.
Development of community trust and reliance has moved forward with every initiative and with the critical partnership of the Sarpanch and women volunteers. The Sarpanch’s enterprise of identification, recognition of capacity and integrating women volunteers in village-wide positions such as MGNREGA supervision is a testament to how the community views the women.
Mamta, an Aangan Trust volunteer elected as MGNREGA supervisor, understood the urgency of the matter and took concrete action to make Nagar Thana, Donaval, child labor free. In view of such steps being taken by volunteers for prioritising community and child safety, women volunteers have become a strong identity, motivator and resource for other women in the community. Women have started speaking about livelihood, self-employment options and protection of children at the panchayat level.
It looks like carving spaces for women and children to share stories which discriminates, dehumanizes and disappears them. It looks like the change that transforms with collective action and justice that is seen. It looks like Rajvati, Mamta and so many more women of Bharatpur — who show what a woman can do. She can demand accountability, speak the truth and take action.
These are the women who raise their children and leave their homes to ensure all children are raised in a safe community. They are our hope. May we all learn from their resilience and find ways to lift their voices far and wide.
The piece accompanies Aangan Trust’s advocacy efforts to stop child marriages.
Sakshi Chandra works in government advocacy, strategy and communications at Aangan Trust, a non-profit organisation dedicated to ending child abuse in India. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram. Aangan Trust can be followed on Twitter and Instagram.