India: Getting girl children out of work and into school

June 12, 2008

As part of its poverty reduction efforts, the World Bank's Rural Livelihoods Projects in Andhra Pradesh, India, have helped empower around 8 million poor rural households, particularly the women. Many of these women have identified child labor as a key area for collective action.

By supporting poor mothers to join Self Help Groups (SHG), save money, take loans to pay off old debts and start new livelihoods, the project has helped ensure that children do not need to work to support their families. The SHGs have also mobilized the parents to send their children to school. In addition, the project is assisting the construction and management of residential schools for these children.

"Child labor has come down significantly in Andhra Pradesh," says T. Vijay Kumar, CEO of the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), the agency implementing the World Bank projects. "Eight years ago, 40-45% of children in the state were out-of-school and worked as child laborers; in 2008, this number has come down to 20%."

June 12, 2008, Kurnool, India—Nineteen year-old Anita can never forget toiling for long hours in the hot summer in the cotton fields of rural Andhra Pradesh. When the bushes were sprayed with pesticide, she would fall down and faint.

Every morning Anita would see groups of local children laughing on their way to school. “I longed to join them,” she recalls. “My mother would then explain to me why I couldn’t be part of their happy group.”

The family, from the downtrodden dalit community, was desperately poor and when Anita was eight years old - old enough to work- her parents mortgaged her to the local landlord for a loan of Rs.10,000.

That meant working free for the landlord for as long as it took to repay the family's debt. Given the exorbitant rates of interest and the family’s limited capacity to repay, Anita’s hopes of ever escaping her miserable existence seemed a distant dream.

Anita and her mother Prabhavati Amma. When Anita was eight years old, she worked as a bonded laborer in the cotton fields of their landlord. Now she has finished school and is a trained nurse.

Twenty year-old Mangai Bai Lambadi 's fate was much the same. Belonging to the ‘adivasi’ or local indigenous community, she spent her childhood gather ing twigs and branches to sell as firewood. “We earned a meager ten rupees a day, hardly enough to feed our family of six,” she recalls.

Communities motivated to send girl child laborers to school

The turning point for both girls came when the Andhra Pradesh government sought to break the generational cycle of poverty by motivating communities through the SHGs to put all working girls between the ages of 9 and 14 into residential bridge schools to catch up on lost learning.

Mangai proved to be a quick learner. She soaked up the teaching, became fluent in Telugu – the state language of Andhra Pradesh- leapfrogging four grades in one year. Having caught up with her peers, she competed for and won a place in one of the free state-run residential schools.

Some 88 such residential schools have been set up across Andhra Pradesh with the help of the two World Bank poverty reduction projects in the state. These schools provide free food, lodging and teaching to some 41,000 girls, especially those from the historically downtrodden dalit, adivasi, and backward caste communities in the remoter regions where the incidence of child labor and trafficking of girls is high.

“Without these schools - and the assistance provided to parents to set up alternative livelihoods through self help groups - the girls would have continued their lives of drudgery working as agricultural laborers, grazing animals, toiling in brick kilns, or looking after younger siblings,” says Parmesh Shah, the World Bank team leader for the project.

Child labor has reduced significantly in Andhra Pradesh

The impact of these efforts has begun to be felt. "Child labor has come down significantly in Andhra Pradesh," says T. Vijay Kumar, CEO of the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), the agency implementing the World Bank projects.

Mangai Bai Lambadi used to collect firewood to sell. Now, she has earned a meritorious distinction in her nursing course and teaches rural women about health and nutrition.

"One of the main factors is the social and economic empowerment of poor families through their SHGs and the support to them from the government."

"Eight years ago, 40-45% of children in the state were out-of-school and child laborers," he said, "whereas in 2008, this number has come down to 20%."

The demand for such schools is growing. “The thinking of the community has turned around,"says Parmesh Shah. "Parents are now eager to send their daughters to school. And, every family is now budgeting for the education of their girls as part of their household expenses.”

Communities now want these schools to include higher education at the intermediate and college levels, as well as the introduction of vocational education for the girls.

The new residential schools have better attendance than other government schools. Results routinely exceed 95% with many children going on for higher education. Drop-out rates have fallen from 14.8% in 2001 to 4.3% in 2005-2006.

Yet, given the magnitude of the task at hand, challenges invariably remain. As first generation learners, some of the girls find it difficult to cope with their studies. There is also room for improvement in the residential and academic facilities provided.

Educated girls are agents of change

But in the end, given the enormous obstacles in getting children out of labor and into school, these schools have been very successful in enrolling such large number of girls from extremely deprived backgrounds.

“The most important thing is that these children now have an opportunity,” says P. Jamuna, State Project Advisor on Gender issues for Society for Elimination of Rural poverty (SERP), the implementing agency of the project. “Their families had nothing before, but now within one generation things have turned around.When these girls have children of their own, they will make sure that they send them to school to make something of their lives.”

Anita and Mangi Bai are good examples. Both girls moved out of their lives of drudgery, following up their schooling with a year long course in nursing where Mangi Bai earned a meritorious distinction. Now, standing in their crisp white saris and neatly tied hair, it’s difficult to guess that the two had once been child laborers.

For the moment, both are employed by the federation of self help groups as community health workers setting up nutritional centers for women. They travel to Vishakhapatnam and Guntur districts where they share their knowledge of health, hygiene and nutrition with the women of surrounding villages. Many other alumni have gone for higher studies or taken up jobs in the services sector in the state capital, Hyderabad , and other towns.

“These girls are role models that meet the emerging aspirations of the poor,” says Varalakshmi Vemuru the co-team leader of the project. “They are the real agents of change in the community.”

A new beginning has been made, the ripples of which are bound to reverberate in the years to come.