Vellore women show the way

By Ramya Kannan (The Hindu), on OneWorld SouthAsia, 15 June 2006 – It could be said that change in Vellore began with the Kalanjiam (granary). In just the way a deeply scarred society heals itself, some parts of the district have hit the path of recovery. The prime agent of change is Kalanjiam, a federation of women’s self-help groups.

Over 260 SHGs are members of this group that brings about attitude change in the villages. “Our men are useless, all drunkards. Long ago, we realised that depending on them was impractical. So we have taken things into our hands,” says Rachel, president of the federation, headquartered in Gudiyatham.

Working in an area that is nearly `endemic’ to child labour, with the local beedi and matchstick industries hiring children for work, the women decided to storm this Bastille. The other aspects of their agenda are to prevent fresh recruitment of child labourers, outlaw the sale of alcohol, put all children in school, provide them tuition, books and notebooks, create employment opportunities for adults and use their savings to benefit women and children.

The federation has been instrumental in securing the release of 644 children from match and beedi units. For this, they have mobilised Rs.30,000 in savings to pay off the owners who had loaned paltry sums to the children and were holding them to labour until the money was repaid.

“The children or their families will never be able to repay the money. They get a few rupees … daily and even out of this, a certain portion is held back by the owner as loan recovery. They can never save enough even if the loan is just Rs.2,000,” explains Pushpa, leader of the Kalarpalayam women’s SHG. Poornima of Kuttaimedu, for instance, worked for two years at the local match factory for a loan of Rs.200, before she was rescued by the SHG.

“When they started off, the women were rather shy and dominated by their husbands. But once they started using their savings to release the children, their confidence soared,” says Dayalan, a World Vision co-ordinator. The NGO has helped to build these groups and network with each other to help them emerge as a strong force in the community.

The women are also members of the Child Protection Committee constituted in each village, which keeps a watch on trafficking of children. When they realised that children had no time to study at home because they were forced to stack matches, the SHGs started evening tuition classes.

Their success has primarily been in changing the mindset of the community. “We too sent our children to the match factory. Once we were educated about the ills of child labour, we … took on the task of persuading other women to see it our way,” says Rachel.

To a large extent, they seem to have been successful in their tasks, but as a young SHG member points out, there are hurdles. “Our basic problem is poverty. An adult earns Rs25-Rs.30 after a day’s hard labour. Even a set of notebooks costs Rs.40. How can they think of educating their children? Unless some employment opportunities are provided to us, we will not be able to realise our dream of making our villages child labour-free.”

Kalanjiam can be contacted at 100, Katpadi Road, N.S.M.Mansion, Gudiyatham- 632602, Vellore, Ph: 04171-221287.

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