Helping Girls Protect Themselves in India
"What do I want to do when I grow up?" asks Vijaya Lakshmi. "Become a teacher and work at this school! Before I came here, I never thought I could do so many things. I have learned so much, and gained so much confidence. I want other girls to have the same opportunity as me."
Until two years ago, Vijaya Lakshmi, a poised, intelligent and responsible fourteen year-old girl, spent ten hours a day working in the cotton fields earning about 30 cents per day for her grueling work. "I felt tired all the time. I had headaches and stomach aches, and I was jealous of other girls who were able to go to school," Vijaya explained. "I could never imagine I'd be where I am today."
In rural India, child labor is extremely common due mostly to conditions of extreme poverty. In Vijaya's home state of Andhra Pradesh (AP) families are highly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. Many young girls are employed in the cotton seed industry as bonded laborers—forced to return loans given to their families by cotton farmers. These girls are often exposed to hazardous chemicals used on cotton, work long hours, and receive meager pay for their work. Many of the estimated 248,000 children employed in the cotton seed industry in AP are not attending school, either because they have dropped out or have never had the opportunity to attend.
Vijaya Lakshmi's parents could not afford to send all their children to school, so they made the choice many rural, poor Indian families make: they sent their son. "I went to school until grade two," described Vijaya. "However, my parents asked me to leave school for work in the cotton fields. My brother was not asked to drop out because my parents thought it was most important to educate the son."
World Education, in partnership with a local organization, the Center for Applied Research (Care), is developing an education program focused on relevant, practical life skills for child girl laborers at the residential Kuchinerla School. The teachers help the girls learn to read, write, do simple math, and learn practical life skills including health, hygiene, nutrition, gardening and income—generating activities. The girls often work in groups, enabling them to learn team work and problem-solving—and create strong friendships with the other girls, an element of the program most girls say has given them great courage and strength.
Vijaya first learned about the Kuchinerla School when she met one of the teachers visiting the cotton fields where she worked. She was excited about the opportunity to return to school but was met with great reluctance from her parents. It was only after the teacher paid multiple visits to her home that her parents finally agreed to send Vijaya back to school.
Vijaya's enthusiasm about the Kuchinerla School is obvious. "This school is different from other schools," she exclaims. "Teachers here encourage me to ask many questions. They teach us with patience and make us feel like they really care about what happens to us. I receive good grades and learn how to take care of my body, eat properly, and grow vegetables for better nutrition.
Students also help raise awareness about the hazards of working in the cotton fields and mobilizing support for the school through outreach to surrounding communities. Girls and teachers together meet with parents, local leaders and others to tell them about the school, the benefits of education and better understand how the community can become involved in and support the activities of the school.
The importance of education is not lost on Vijaya. "I see that educated people, women in particular, have more respect in society. Today, I can read letters and the newspaper. I know how to keep myself healthy. I am not afraid to ask questions. I help the smaller, younger girls adjust to living here and going to school. My parents are so proud of me. My dream now is to become a teacher and work here at the Kuchinerla School and help people in our villages understand the dangers of working in the cotton fields and the importance of girls' education."
For the next three years, World Education and Care will conduct a detailed longitudinal study carried out at Kuchinerla School, formal schools where girl graduates are studying, and local communities in villages surrounding the school to assess educational outcomes and the applicability of the model to other educational initiatives and activities.