JALNA: Unfolding one of the many letters dropped off in the Samwaad Peti (Dialogue Box) set up to address students’ grievances, she stared at the paper; the handwriting seemed oddly familiar but Gopika Gadekar, 40, couldn’t remember whose it was.

The note was anonymous. It narrated a young girl’s horror and agony at the thought of her imminent marriage planned by her family. Gadekar knew the task at hand wasn’t going to be simple. She studied the handwriting, narrowed down a few possible names and called a meeting with these girls.

After some discussions and probing, she managed to identify the author of the note. Anita Sawant would have ended up a teenage bride, like many others in the area, had it not been for Gadekar’s intervention.

“I don’t want to marry now. I want to study and become independent, only then can I educate my own children,” Sawant told Gadekar. It took a while but Gadekar managed to convince Sawant’s family to call off the wedding. This incident took place in 2014.

Today, Sawant, 17, is a nursing student in Hedgewar, Aurangabad, and finally under no pressure to get married anytime soon.

Gadekar is the anganwadi worker of Deulgaon Tad village in Jalna’s Bhokardan taluka. Situated 60 kilometres from Jalna town, the hamlet falls in Maharashtra’s distressed Marathwada region. Ridden by economic crisis and unforgiving weather conditions, the residents here face a number of challenges.

Children, however, are among the worst affected. A quick conversation with the locals paints a macabre picture – of little children tirelessly working in cotton fields and then being married off as they step into their teens.

Of course, if active community leaders like Gadekar can help it, such blatant violations are only becoming tougher to pull off. As part of the Village Child Protection Committee (VCPC), she, along with a group of concerned villagers, is raising her voice to uphold the basic rights of children.

The VCPC is constituted under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) introduced in 2009-2010 by the Government of India to help create an environment that ensures the welfare and protection of all children. The committee is participatory in nature and comprises the sarpanch (chairman), anganwadi worker (secretary), Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), police patil, principal or teacher of a primary/secondary (government aided) school, chairperson of the School Management Committee (SMC), community representatives like parents, two members from volunteer organisations, Self Help Groups (SHGs), Mahila Mandals – and a boy and girl each as representatives of children in the 12-18 years age group. Each member has a five-year term.

The VCPC calls a meeting twice every month; the agenda is set by the secretary. As they sit together, members try to resolve various concerns raised by children and adolescents conveyed through the Samwaad Peti, which is opened during the meeting.

It’s an open discussion where everyone’s views and suggestions are taken into consideration; even the youngsters do not hesitate to state their viewpoint. So what are some of the common concerns Gadekar and others have to deal with?

Complaints are usually related to the lack of facilities like drinking water or poor mid-day meal quality in school, apart from serious problems like child marriage. For a week every year, during the Child Rights Week from November 14-20, the VCPC members spread awareness and actively connect with the community by putting up posters, performing street plays and relaying audio messages.

As the Secretary of her VCPC, Gadekar is glad that she has been able to expand the scope of her work and activism – whereas as the anganwadi worker she was equipped to address the problems that affect the healthy development of children, being part of the VCPCs has empowered her to take a stand on various other issues that mar their lives. And since the committee members are from within the village, they are aware of the typical problems that plague their hamlet and are well-informed of the day-to-day happenings.

For instance, the VCPC members are definitely aware of the impending child marriages in their area. Ananda Kautikrao Gadekar, 37, who has been part of the VCPC along with Gadekar for two years now, shares, “When we hear that a child marriage is about to take place, we first counsel both the bride and groom’s family. We tell them about the negative impacts that a union like this can have on the children.

If that approach fails, then we inform the police so that necessary action can be taken.” Going up against age-old customs isn’t easy, especially for the VPCP women and it is not uncommon for them to receive flak from their own family for meddling with “tradition”. But, considering the pitfalls for the children, Gadekar feels it’s worth sticking to one’s stand.

Interactions with villagers reveal that though there are systems in place now to deal with violations like child marriages these can’t be curbed completely until the severe economic crisis prevalent in these parts is resolved. Ravi Kelgaonkar, Secretary of SACRED, an NGO that partners with UNICEF in the area, elaborates, “One of the main reasons girls here are married off at a young age is the lack of resources and finances at home.

Once she is married, there is one less member to feed. It’s essentially the same story in other parts of the country, too.” He adds that in case of families that migrate yearly for work, a spurt in child marriages has been observed just before the sugarcane harvesting season begins because this work is always done in pairs; so if both cutters belong to the same family their collective income increases.

Apart from stalling child marriages and affecting an attitudinal change, the VCPC at Deulgaon Tad is concerned with the drop-out rate among girls. Incidentally, the female literacy rate in the village is a dismal 50.9 per cent. According to them, poor connectivity largely contributes to this.

Located four kilometres away from the road on which the public transport buses ply, it becomes difficult for girls to study beyond Class Seven, the level to which most village schools cater to. Thereafter, it’s curtains on their education because who can ensure that they make it to and from a faraway institution safely.

In fact, mobility in Bhokardan is limited as there are only five buses doing the rounds of the 165 villages in this taluka. While boys manage to cycle over to the high schools girls don’t have the same liberty. Taking this into account, these days, Gadekar and others are working on setting up an auto rickshaw service for girls.

There are several systemic flaws that need to be addressed to protect the rights of children. In particular, significant effort has to be made to improve the socio-economic indicators that feed into the injustices. Nonetheless, the VCPCs give an opportunity to passionate and responsible residents to catalyse some degree of change.

With a bright sparkle in his eyes Ananda remarks, “We have certain responsibilities towards the society and our children so working for their welfare gives me immense pleasure. Before I joined the committee, I used to do my own work, but now the whole village feels like a family and I am valued by the children too.”

(Names of children have been changed to protect their identity.)

(Women's Feature Service)