Restoring childhood: Meet 5 women working against child labour through education and recreation

Although it is illegal in India for children below the age of 18 to be employed in hazardous surroundings, many are forced to give up their childhoods for manual labour. These five women are working towards giving disadvantaged children a new start.

According to data from 2011 by the International Labour Organization, over 10 million children between the ages of five and 14 in India were employed. UNICEF India stated that the 4.6 million girls and 5.6 million boys being illegally employed made up 13 percent of the country's overall workforce. The children commonly worked in cotton and tea fields, match box and lock-making factories, and mines and quarries.

UNICEF India also identified that the main reasons child labour is prevalent in India are poverty and illiteracy of a child's parents, their social and economic circumstances, lack of awareness about the harmful effects of child labour, lack of access to basic education and skill training, adult unemployment, and cultural standpoints.

These alarmingly high numbers of child labour in the country definitely call for serious action, and these five women have been working towards giving disadvantaged children a better life and restoring their childhoods.

Farida Lambay, Shaheen Mistri, Jeroo Billimoria, Geeta Dharmarajan, and Shweta Chari

Geeta Dharmarajan, Katha

In 1989, writer, editor, and educator Geeta Dharmarajan founded Katha - a non-profit organisation focusing on educating children from poor economic backgrounds. Based in Delhi, Katha specialises in teacher training and children's literature. Since 2001, Katha has used an original technique known as Story Pedagogy which is rooted in story-telling and performance art.

In 1990, Geeta also established the Katha Lab School as a learning centre, with just five children in Govindpuri, Delhi. Today, it has been developed into the Centre of Creativity for the Katha Relevant Education for All-Round Development (KREAD), which benefits children living in the slums of Govindpuri where most children have been working to support their families.

So far, Katha has benefitted over 96 lakh children across more than a thousand slums, and partnered with more than a thousand schools in 17 Indian states. The organisation also reports that most of its students have gone on to graduate from college and work at companies like IBM, for the government, or have become entrepreneurs.

Shaheen Mistri, Akanksha Foundation and Teach for India

In 1991, Shaheen Mistri founded the Akanksha Foundation, a non-profit organisation that equips children from low-income communities with the education and skills they require to lead successful lives.

Until 2007, the Foundation operated through its after-school centres, but today it has established 21 schools of its own across Mumbai and Pune. The schools have nearly 500 educators and over 8,000 students in all. The Akanksha Foundation also reports an average of 91 percent student attendance and 97 percent student retention.

In 2008, Shaheen also founded Teach For India (TFI) because she felt the need to address the issue of educational inequity at scale. TFI is another non-profit organisation that focuses on building a network of educators for children from low-income backgrounds.

The TFI Fellowship requires individuals to commit two years to educating children, and conduct large-scale collective projects to push change. Currently, TFI has more than 1,000 Fellows teaching across seven cities, and approximately 2,500 alumni.

Farida Lambay, Pratham

In the year 1995, educator and social activist Farida Lambay co-founded Pratham, an 'innovative learning organisation' that works towards improving the quality of education in India. Initially established for children in the slums of Mumbai, Pratham has scaled enormously over the past 23 years.

Pratham works alongside government, local communities, parents, teachers, and volunteers. Its aim is to supplement government efforts rather than replace them. Pratham's teaching methodologies also challenge traditional approaches with more innovation and outcome-driven strategies.

Pratham also runs the 'Second Chance' programme, which helps girls and women who have dropped out of school, restart their education. The programme allows them to attend classes once their chores are done, and are guided by trained tutors around the year. For five days a year, the girls and women also attend intensive learning sessions from subject specialists.

In the year 2017-18, Pratham reached a total of 23 Indian states, and reached over 80 lakh children and youth across the country. The organisation is also established in the United States where it runs events like the Readathon to raise funds for its work in India.

Jeroo Billimoria, Childline India

Childline India was established as an experimental project in 1996 by Jeroo Billimoria, a professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) after interacting with children living at railway stations and night shelters in Mumbai. It works for the protection of children under the age of 18 and operates a 24/7 telephone helpline for children in distress. It focuses on children in more vulnerable sections, such as victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, children of sex workers, children with disabilities and children affected by conflict and disaster.

Established across the country by the Government of India in 1998-99, the Childline operates through a network of street and community youth, non-profit organisations, institutions and individuals. The call centres have teams of trained youth who receive calls 24/7 and attend to crises as soon as possible. The teams regularly follow up to make sure the child is out of danger, and later provide access to rehabilitation processes.

Childline India has conducted various rescue missions, including 42 children from sexual abuse in Bengaluru, seven girls being trafficked to Aligarh, and 23 children from a circus in Akola.

Shweta Chari, Toybank

Founded in 2004 by Shweta Chari in Mumbai, Toybank is an initiative under the Opentree Foundation that aims to promote the 'Right to Play' for all children. It was started with the aim of providing toys to children from underserved communities, and regularly organises toy collection drives across schools, corporates and other institutes through its network of volunteers.

The toys are distributed to children through over 250 'Play Centres' set up in various cities across the country including Delhi, Pune, and Bengaluru. ToyBank has also sensitised teachers about the importance of recreation in a child's development through workshops known as Power of Play in schools and community centres.

To extend its reach, Toybank partners with several schools and NGOs across the country as well. In the year 2017-18, the organisation reached more than 43,000 children in Maharashtra with toys and recreational programmes.