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Knowing rights from wrong in India

By Uchengamma (former Bhima Sangha President)

Early on I learned about Bhima Sangha from the Concerned for Working Children organisation, one of the first NGOs working exclusively on the issue of child labour and children's rights in India. From time to time I would attend the meetings of Bhima Sangha, a union of, by and for working children in Karnataka, as well as those held by the Makkala Panchayats, children's village councils, which took place regularly in my village. I became a member of Bhima Sangha in 2000. I became increasing involved and became its state president.

When Bhima Sangha planned a leadership training programme at state level in 2001, I was selected as a participant. During the training programme, I learned how to form and lead children's organisations, how to list issues in order of importance and how to do cost and benefit analyses. As a result, my participation in Bhima Sangha grew. I had a clearer idea about what information and experiences I should take from other organisations and understood better which of our organisation's experiences to share with others.

Before I joined Bhima Sangha, my parents asked me to leave school to work in the fields. In those days, I felt that this was the right thing to do, but now I feel differently; that having an education was, and still is, my right. I also feel that children of my age should not be involved in child labour. Through my involvement in Bhima Sangha, I know that I have changed a lot. I have learned about working children from different areas and the situations in which they live and work. I have learned how to get along well with other children and the importance of building relationships with them. I have had opportunities to be a resource person for several children's and women's programmes – and I have gained a lot from this experience. I have also earned respect as an individual and as a member of an organisation.

Before joining the organisation, I hardly spoke to others. I never went anywhere apart from my house, my fields and my village. I use to feel that it was wrong to talk to others, especially boys. Now I have learned to socialise easily and can speak up without hesitating. I can visit far away places and participate without fear or anxiety. Now I have the ability and the confidence to determine what is right and what is wrong. For example, when my family decided to take me out of school at the age of 11, I didn't even react to their decision. In those days I used to think that whatever adults do is always right. But recently, when my family and my community tried to make me marry against my will, I tried to convince them that this marriage was wrong.

When discussions with my family and community failed, I protested against my proposed marriage with the help of the Makkala Panchayat, Bhima Sangha and several other supporting organisations. Our protest was successful.

Previously, our community looked down upon girls who would speak or sing in public.They used to say that those girls lacked good character. I too used to think like them. Now, I think it is a matter of great respect for children, especially girls, to have opportunities to be heard in public.

As I said in the film Citizens Today (2002) that is available from Concerned for Working Children: “First of all, we must have integrity, and then we should demand the same from others. We don't want anyone to point fingers at us. We want to bring credit to our organisation. We respect others and we expect others to respect us.”

With the help of the Sangha, many children are now trying to participate, develop skills and stand on their own feet.Through my participation in Bhima Sangha, many children who are members of the organisation are actively participating in various fields, programmes and discussions. As a result of the work of the organisation, the situation of working children has improved in my area. Earlier, working children were never paid the right wages for their labour. Now they demand this as a right and have actually obtained better working conditions and better wages as a result. I also believe that because of our fight against child marriages, the situation of girls like me in our village has improved.

Most often barriers to children's participation come from families, from neighbours and other members of the community, especially if they lack awareness about our participation. If the child is a girl there are greater restrictions on her movements and she is not allowed to participate. Boys face other kinds of restrictions such as pressures from work. For instance, if a boy is working on a farm or in a hotel, he does not have any time to participate. Boys face a lot of pressure and their families put a lot of responsibility on them. Because of this, they lack time to seek out information, to learn and to participate.

Adults who are aware of the importance of children's participation should educate children and other adults.They should encourage children to learn and should create opportunities for them to participate. They should also help children to distinguish between good and bad participation.

I am very happy that I am one of leaders of our organisation. I am also very aware that such leadership brings with it a lot of responsibility. I am always thinking about how to make our organization stronger. I am trying to find ways of building on the information, opportunities and respect that I get in order to achieve something remarkable for our organization.

Source: Child Rights Information Network Newsletter,16, Oct. 2002. www.crin.org. The 30 min. VHS “Citizens Today” is available from cwc@pobox.com.

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