From zardozi workshop to school: Sewing success, one stitch at a time 

On World Day against Child Labour 2022 we look at Halima Khatun’s inspiring story and why all our children must get opportunities to grow to their full potential

By Puja Marwaha
Published: Sunday 12 June 2022
Zardozi workshop; photo: Debayan Dutta

It was just seven in the morning, and the daily chores were about to start at Chawkparan Kantakhali village, an hour-and-a-half’s hour’s drive from Kolkata. Halima (not her real name) could hear the girls next door preparing to go to school.

Their chatters and babbles were drifting in through the windows, as they were chocking with shrieks of laughter as they found their feet to have outgrown their old school shoes. Excitement was in the air, and there was a reason to it. Their school had just reopened after the prolonged COVID closure — and it was the first day they were going to school after two years. 

But for Halima Khatun, the 16-year-old girl, the day didn’t bring in joy and hope. She slowly changed into her regular work-dress and trudged her way to the nearby karkhana.

The factory was no more than just a makeshift workshop with one big room with a thatched roof, where local girls and women used to assemble for zardozi and other embroidery works. Wasting no time, Halima went to her corner and hunched upon the unfinished saari she had been working on for the past two days. It was going to be a long day for her, as she was to finish off the saari by the day even if that meant working overtime. 

Cut to the pan-India macrocosm — the picture is not very different. Over the past few months, media has been flooding with many stories narrating how multitudes of students have been dropped out of education during the pandemic, and feared not to come back to school when they reopened, as a major portion of the students have already been engaged in work. 

When put into the global perspective, the latest report on the global estimates 2020 by International Labour Organization and UNICEF revealed that significant shares of children in child labour were out of school across the countries in Central and Southern Asia, and more than one-third (35.3 per cent) of children between 5-14 years in child labour were not attending schools.

The report further stated that “The COVID-19 crisis threatens to further erode global progress against child labour unless urgent mitigation measures are taken. New analysis suggests a further 8.9 million children will be in child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of rising poverty driven by the pandemic.” 

The report also estimated that there were 26.3 millions of children within 5-17 years engaged in labour in the Central and Southern Asia, and warned that without accelerated collective action, globally, close to 140 million children will be in child labour in 2025, and 125 million in 2030. More alarmingly, the report stressed that, globally, more than 70 per cent of child labour is within family and agriculture, and in rural areas. 

Coming to the Indian context, there is a dearth of available secondary data, when it comes to assess the magnitude of child and adolescent population pushed into commercial labour during the COVID years. Going by the Census 2011 figures, more than half (51 per cent) of total child labourers within the age of 5-14 years were not attending educational institutions.

According to more recent figures from Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS 2017-18), close to 6 per cent children in the age-group of 5–14 years were out of school, and a considerable number of them were engaged in work.

CRY’s experiences from the grass-roots suggest that bringing the dropped out children back to school after a year or more would prove to be extremely difficult, thereby causing irreversible damage to the future of children, especially the marginalised ones living under the shadows of multi-dimensional poverty.

Over the past couple of decades, it had been a hard battle to ensure that our children are in schools and are well-protected from being pushed into child labour — it had taken huge efforts, resources, finances as well as changing community outlooks — and we have reasons to be worried that much of the success can go to waste.

We believe that that the government need to make concerted efforts to improve systems related to children’s education and protection mechanisms and strengthen social security schemes to help families sustain themselves — now more than ever, particularly in the backdrop of the pandemic.

What the country needs is rebuilding a robust child protection and social security system which has been disrupted to some extent during the pandemic. Stringent enforcement of the child labour law and activating village-level child protection committees as the primary level of safety net at the ground level are the two-pronged strategies that can do wonder in addressing the issue of child labour. 

And yes, we must not ignore the role the Civil Society Organisations can play in eliminating child labour, by reaching out to the last mile child and families and help the Government to deliver social protection schemes to the children and their families within the under-served communities. 

Cut back to the microcosm of Mohanpur, Halima’s story, however, found a happy ending, as by chance she met a couple of field workers at Kajla Janakalyan Samiti, a local grass roots level NGO supported by CRY.

They offered to link her to the bridge school programme they were running there, and to get her re-enrolled to school when she was ready. A little unsure in the beginning, but finally she burst into a big, beaming smile at the prospect of going back to school again — a smile just as bright and liberating as the one the other girls were laughing as they were hurrying to go to school in the morning.

A great story of success, indeed! But let’s not forget that we have many more Halimas around us, and it’s still a long way to go and see all of them smiling the same smile.

Views expressed are the author’s and does not necessarily reflect that of Down To Earth.

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