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The story of a young girl who found her childhood, following the intervention of the Child Protection Committee in her village in Assam
I want to tell you that today was the most special day of my 7-year-old life, which has been quite horrid so far. When I, Makhmuda Begum, woke up this morning in my village (called Hariapar in Morigaon district of Assam – you won’t find it on Google maps, which shows how ‘backward’ it is!), I could never have imagined how proud and happy I would be by the end of the day.
Two years ago, my family had moved to a village called Kalangpar which is located 28 kms from my native village as my father (Maha Alom) wanted us to work in a brick kiln there. If -- due to our impoverishment -- our life had not been happy until then, it just got a lot worse. Even as both my parents began work in the brick kiln, they also forced me and my 13-year-old brother to work there. When I was not ‘helping’ in the brick kiln, then I would be forced to carry out the household chores of cooking, cleaning and washing utensils. My parents were always fighting and also hitting us children. Then, one day my mother (Wahida Khatun) ran away with my younger brother who was only 6-years-old. My father unleashed even more misery onto me after this.
A few weeks ago, my grandfather (Rafikul Islam) came to meet us and brought me back to my native village, much against the wishes of my father. My grandfather told my father that he was a member of the recently-formed Child Protection Committee in the village (an initiative of Save the Children, which is a NGO). The CPC has taught him that children had rights and that child labour was punishable under law. He had said that while the CPC was taking up children’s protection issues in the village and even addressing the same among government officials, he could not allow his own grandchildren to live an oppressed life. He wanted us to live like children should. Reluctantly, my father had to let me go.
And then today around noon, my grandfather came looking for me at home, where I was playing by the pond. He told me that the CPC had met and that there was a surprise for me. He didn’t tell me more but he took me along to meet with some Save the Children representatives who were visiting our village and who had participated in the CPC meeting, along with the women, children and elders who were its regular members.
“Would you like to go to school?” asked one of the Save the Children representatives. I was quite stunned by the question as no one had asked me anything like this before. I looked towards my grandfather for support and he put his arm around me and told me to reply. I sputtered, “Yes, of course… I have always wanted to go to school, along with the other children. It is my dream. But can I still go to school now?”
One of the Save the Children community volunteers came up to me and looked at my upper arms. “She has not been immunized,” she pointed out. Yes, I did not have the tell-tale vaccination mark on my arm. Who would have the time or interest to take me to the health camps, I asked myself, even as the members of the Mothers Group, some of whom were listening, promised to follow up on this matter with the government’s health workers. The Mothers Group is getting engaged in the health initiatives of the villagers just as the CPC is looking at the overall children rights, which include education and protection, apart from pushing for necessary health interventions.
The NGO’s representative smiled and so did my grandfather as we proceeded to the school. I used to go there to play with the children in the Child-Friendly Space (CFS) -- that was initially created by Save the Children following the floods last year (and which was being managed by the community now). All the children were left here to play safely after school hours – and this was the closest I had got to the school. Now, we went ahead of the CFS and I entered the school building with some trepidation.
In a classroom, we met the teacher, since the headmaster was not there. After some explanations by Hasan Ali, the President of the CPC (who had also accompanied us), the teacher opened a school register and enrolled me into his class. At that moment the Save the Children representatives handed over a school bag, a water bottle and an umbrella which were meant for me. I had never owned anything of my own and even during the regular rains in our parts, I had never used an umbrella. The CPC president helped me to put the school bag on my back. It was a wonderful feeling. Many of the school children who had gathered at the scene began to clap their hands. It was like I was being awarded for all the misery I had borne in my short life so far. I could not control my smiles -- as this was the most, perhaps the only, special moment of my life yet.
The celebration continued as my friends from the village gathered around me and welcomed me to school. At this moment, I feel I have no worries anymore and also have the strong feeling that my life will never be as hopeless as it has been till today.
Written by Devendra Tak, who is the National Manager, Media & Communication for Save the Children (firstname.lastname@example.org)