No Child Left Behind: Stemming the Return to Child Labour as Covid Keeps Schools Closed

Vu que les écoles sont fermées, les enfants font leurs bancs d'école comme ils peuvent.

Covid restrictions have stopped India’s children going to school. In Budhpura, Manjari is bringing school to the children.

It’s no secret that the Covid pandemic has hit India hard. And beyond the news of overwhelmed hospitals, oxygen shortages, and the high death count, are other stories—of the potential long-term impact of this crisis on the country’s children.

Covid and school closures

Last year, over one and a half million elementary and secondary schools in India closed, to try to limit the spread of the virus. A few states began to reopen schools for older children at the end of 2020. However, Manish Singh, secretary of Manjari, the grass-roots NGO that operates in Budhpura, Rajasthan, reports that schools in the area are still closed. The long-term impact—affecting not only the children, but their future families—means reduced earning potential in the years to come.

Varun Sharma is Programmes Director of Aravali, the agency that acts as an interface between the government and grass-roots organisations like Manjari. “With learning levels not good,” he says, “our experts report that it will take another four or five years if you want to fulfill the deficit caused by the long lockdown.”

And that’s if the children return to school. A major challenge has been to keep them interested in learning. In India overall, it was estimated before the crisis that around six million children were not attending school. Now, across the whole country, 247 million children have lost time in the classroom and it is feared that many will never return.

This is partly because some children have returned to work, undoing some of the progress made in eradicating child labour. Absolute poverty is one of the driving factors in the existence of child labour, and no one can blame parents for feeling that, with no school and nothing to do, their children would be better occupied earning money.

Group of 3 children of different ages, sitting on stone slabs, with worksheets spread around. in Budhpura, Rajasthan, India. They're not in school because of Covid restrictions.


Worksheets have been developed with the help of subject experts, on core subjects like Maths and Hindi, and delivered to children. Image courtesy of Manjari

Manjari brings school to the children

Again Manjari have been busy, visiting families, explaining that work is not worth the cost to child development—the danger being that work compromises the child’s future as they are not then interested in going back to school.

To an extent, Manjari has become “school”. Although central government set up remote learning initiatives last year, to try to compensate for school closures, the huge urban/rural divide in the availability of the Internet is a major handicap. Pre-Covid, it was estimated that in rural areas only around 4% of households have access. “For the families in Budhpura, having an android-based mobile handset with internet connectivity is still a distant dream,” points out Manish Singh, Secretary of Manjari.

So, when permitted by Covid restrictions, volunteers have brought school to the children. Education Volunteers were briefed and given the responsibility of visiting a hundred households. “We create small groups of children,” says Manish, “and they share worksheets based on minimum academic levels, which come back to us for feedback.” The volunteers have reached around 1000 children in Budhpura and the surrounding villages.

An adolescent girl wearing a surgical mask because of Covid restrictions, leads a warm up session in the open air, before classes begin, in Budhpura, Rajasthan, India


A girl leads a warm-up session before learning commences. Alongside Education Volunteers are also Community Based Peer Educators—older boys and girls who go to school. These children have helped their siblings and younger neighbourhood children to continue their studies. “We call them peers,” says Manish, “because they are very much part of the children’s immediate environment and have a capacity to influence other children.” Image courtesy of Manjari

The importance of play

But all work and no play…is never good. “There is also a kind of psychological damage to the growth of children, because their whole environment is restricted now,” says Manish. “So we have distributed sports material to twenty children’s groups. They play in a safe environment with their friends and discuss their tensions.”

The teams have also visited cobble yards, organising games and story-telling nearby so that the children aged two or three years old, who cannot be left at home when their parents go to work, are able to play for an hour or two.

A girls' cricket team posing for the camera, in Budhpura, Rajasthan, India.


A girls’ cricket team. Image courtesy of Manjari

Mobile libraries take books to the children

One of the most successful initiatives in sustaining children’s interest has been the library. Inevitably, because of the pandemic, the central library—which is in Manjari’s office in Budhpura—closed last year. The mobile library was born, transporting up to sixty books at a time to different villages.

Manjari are providing funding and, over the year, the value of this initiative has become obvious. Over 3000 books have been borrowed from the library and there is increasing demand for new ones.

One of the most heartening aspects of working to improve conditions is the relatively small investment needed to make an impact. “Reaching to far-flung mining areas is difficult,” explains Varun, “so a small investment is suggested, to get an electric rickshaw—very low cost—which can reach these areas without involving fuel charges. This will help us to reach out to these children with books and developing their learning habits.”

Lack of science facilities

However, dealing with the problems created by Covid has underlined another lack, not related to the pandemic. “The children have no facilities to study science and maths,” says Manish. “There are no teachers for these subjects, so we are not creating interest in the children. And the ages of nine, ten and eleven are when a child gets their attitude to study.”

A class of young children sitting on the ground in open air class, wearing masks because of Covid virus, Rajasthan, India,


Classes have been held where possible. Picture credit: Manjari

The consequence is that children have no option except to study humanities—something which skews the future skills base of the country. “We’re in touch with local consultants,” says Manish. “When Covid is over we want to establish a small room at the centre where children come to see experiments.”

To facilitate this, we at No Child Left Behind will be looking into opportunities to provide books, science kits and other resources to spark an interest in children in these subjects in the early years.

But that is for the future. For now, all efforts are concentrated on keeping children and their families engaged, against the time when Covid restrictions will be a past difficulty, overcome.

Read more about Manjari, the grass-roots organisation in Budhpura, in Celebrating Budhpura! and The NGO helping to eradicate child labour

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Giving girls a future that isn’t “set in stone”

Long line of Indian girls in facemasks, sitting, looking towards camera on their left.

No Child Left Behind: helping to expand the life opportunities of adolescent girls.

Long line of Indian girls in facemasks, sitting, looking towards camera on their left.

A major focus of the work being performed by Manjari* within the community of Budhpura is in improving the health and prospects of adolescent girls.

Twenty-seven sessions have been delivered to adolescent groups in the last few months, covering topics such as literacy and entrepreneurship. One of the biggest benefits of this programme is in expanding the horizons of young women, helping them to see that their future is not “set in stone”.

Around 250 girls are involved in the programme; less than a third them are still in school, and some do occasional work in the stone yards. Some are, indeed, married. The legal age of marriage in India is 18.

Girls gather for one of their regular meetings.

Just as we explained in previous articles that child labour is a result of a complex situation, so is under-age marriage. It’s a concern that India as a whole has been trying to address for decades. The situation is improving and numbers are falling. In Rajasthan, however, the percentage of under-age marriages is much higher than the national average; Manish Singh, Secretary of Manjari reports that, in the Budhpura area, around 32% of marriages are under age.

The negative consequences of child marriage are many. Girls who marry very young have fewer educational opportunities, which affects their economic status and has a consequent impact on the economy of the country. Teenage pregnancy increases population growth because of the extra years of fertility. Young brides are more likely to be the victim of domestic violence and, according to the International Women’s Health Coalition, girls under the age of 15 are nearly five times more likely to die during childbirth, compared with women in their 20s; they are also at more risk of injuries resulting from pregnancy and childbirth.

The health of the children they bear can also suffer; often babies are underweight, and there’s a risk of their growing up stunted. All of this contributes to a cycle poverty, so there is enormous benefit to eradicating under-age marriage.

However tempting it is to condemn a situation, no problem has a single cause, and no problem has a single solution.

The work of Manjari and other agencies involved has to take into account multiple intertwining strands. “It’s how society perceives women,” explains Manish. “Are they considered a burden and responsibility, or are they people full of human potential?”

A meeting for adolescent girls in progress. Manish Singh in the blue check shirt.

Poverty also plays a big role. “In India marriages are big business, so when an older girl is being married, a young girl is also married with her just to save money.”

One of the ways to combat early marriage is education. Women with twelve or more years at school are far more likely to get married in their twenties than those with no schooling.

It is, however, no coincidence that girls tend to drop out of school when they reach puberty. Menstruation is a major issue. and menstrual hygiene is another of the subjects covered in the sessions attended by the girls.

Some of the problems surrounding periods are cultural; when she’s menstruating, a girl can find herself subject to restrictions on behaviour and movement passed on by parents and siblings. Unsafe menstrual practices, such as reusing old cloths, are not uncommon in rural areas; they increase the danger of contracting reproductive tract infections, which can severely impact fertility later on.

The pandemic has in no way helped. There’s been a huge shortage of sanitary pads, with seven out of ten girls finding difficulty in obtaining them during lockdown, according to a study by the NGO Population Foundation of India last August. Interestingly, Poonam Muttreja, its executive director, was reported in the Hindustan Times as saying: “It takes tremendous convincing on the part of frontline workers to encourage and educate school-going girls to use sanitary napkins.”

Perhaps this has something to do with the financial aspect. Girls have been reluctant in the past to buy sanitary towels because of their high cost, but they’ve also been embarrassed to them in male-run shops.

One of the life-skills training sessions in progress.

This makes the sessions incredibly important in educating young women in menstrual health, but without access to sanitary towels, the education is in vain. Varun Sharma, Programmes Director of Aravali, one of the agencies involved in supporting the work of Manjari, said, “There is a very big issue of women not being able to access sanitary napkins. In the absence of that, their entire life suffers.”

A lack of sanitary towels leads to girls dropping out of school—one of the very things which can help their life chances. As part of the solution, Manish has got together four entrepreneurs, to procure good-quality low-price sanitary napkins. They have now started selling these to women.

It’s one small building block in giving adolescent girls life options which in the past weren’t even dreamed of. The self-help groups that are empowering women financially is another. There are other building blocks too. All are combining to create a structure that gives women a more recognized value in their community.

*For more information on Manjari, see The NGO helping to eradicate child labour.

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How financial empowerment gives women a voice

Financial empowerment is the key to increasing women’s influence in putting an end to child labour.

It’s not been easy in Budhpura—the centre of the cobble-making industry in Rajasthan and focus of No Child Left Behind, our project to support work to eradicate child labour in the natural stone industry.

India is reeling under the spread of Covid-19 and it is all the more to the credit of those involved that progress continues to be made, in such difficult circumstances, with the community projects that are so valuable in improving lives in the stone industry.

Self-help groups have been a feature of village life for some time.

Manjari is the grass-roots NGO that operates in the heart of Budhpura with a team of fifteen who work directly with mine-workers, their families and local businesses.

Manish Singh is Manjari’s Secretary. “Wave one of the virus did not bring any difficulty,” he says, “but wave two has been disastrous. We do not have much liberty to move in the field, so whatever volunteers we have are managing the work.”

Although the ultimate aim of their work is to eradicate child labour, the success of this depends on improvements being made to many different aspects of life for those who live and work in the area—to health, education, and income, to name but a few.

Self-help groups have been a feature of village life for some time. Here’s one from 2015.

Enter Self Help groups. Over the past months, support has continued for these wherever possible. Whereas self-help groups in this country are initiated with many different purposes in mind, in India the self-help movement began with the focus firmly on women’s empowerment. “Given the socio-economic and gender disparities we have,” says Manish, “it was considered a tool to bring about change in the life of women.” This is exactly their purpose in Budhpura.

Varun Sharma is Programmes Director of Aravali, the agency that works at state level, acting as an interface between the government and grass-roots organisations like Manjari, while also helping the groups to develop their reach. “If children are at the heart of our project,” says Varun, “then protecting their mothers is also one of the key roles of our programme. That’s why we form self-help groups.”

In normal times, neighbourhood groups of around ten to twenty women meet every month to discuss matters of common interest. “When you bring them together, then the first thing is they must feel that they are a part of group, and the group has an agenda to fulfil. How long can you sustain these groups without an agenda?” points out Manish. “That’s a practical problem we have. So, we keep on taking up different activities.”

Each meeting covers a women’s issue—including family planning, menstrual health, and hygiene—but also has a business agenda.

One of the most important items on the agenda is inculcating saving habits; economic empowerment has a major part to play in making women’s voices heard. “If they have a role in family decision-making because of the money they have, then it makes a difference to their position within the family,” says Manish.

In a meeting.

“We’ve found economic empowerment is very much necessary when we work with women and children,” says Varun. “If she is earning but she’s not saving, at the end of the day a woman doesn’t have the power to negotiate, power to expand—so, she’s only an earner. An earner should be a decision-maker, I think.”

The effects are gradually being felt and Varun has noticed that in areas where women have become more powerful financially, female empowerment overall has been greater.

The dream is that, in giving women a voice and the information they need, women will be able to work together to resolve some of the issues they face—domestic violence and child marriage being just two.

Helping women cannot be done in isolation, however. Everyone in the community has to be brought on board, and the approach is always to be gender-sensitive. “When we say gender-sensitive,” explains Manish, “it means involvement. For us gender is something that involves women and men both. If you think you are empowering women, but the one who is holding the power is not being sensitised, then all your efforts are useless. It is the men who are holding the power.”

So, Manjari works with labour groups too. When these groups—largely made up of men—meet, Manish and his team talk to them, not only about labour rights, but about gender justice and their responsibilities as men in society.

“We work with men and boys,” says Manish, “so their perception of women is changed.”

Read more about the work of Manjari and what has already been achieved in Celebrating Budhpura.

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External Evaluation of the Out of Work Programme (2014 – 2017)

In October 2016, the Stop Child Labour coalition commissioned an external evaluation of its ‘Out of Work, In to School’ programme, that ran from May 2014 to April 2017 and is funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The aim of the programme was to establish child labour free zones using an area-based approach in Asia, Africa and Latin-America, and to mobilise Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives and companies to actively address child labour in their full production and supply chains in order to contribute to the creation of child labour free zones and child labour free supply chains. Our ‘No Child Left Behind’ project is part of this larger programme and was also evaluated.

A quick snapshot of what has been achieved so far:

  • 361 children were prevented from child labour and a whopping 593 were withdrawn from child labour, on a total of 1019 children that were initially identified as ‘out of school’
  • 7 schools (6 primary, 1 secondary) are now running fully functional compared with only 1 before; 8 pre-school centres (Anganwadis) are also present whereas none was operational before.
  • Additional teachers to be appointed by June 2017, thanks to strong lobbying of state government.
  • 84 adolescent girls (15-18y) completed stitching training and 22 young men (15-18y) finished a 6-months electrician education, allowing them to be more self sufficient without having to rely on the cobble trade.
  • 17 Women’s self-help groups (SHG) were established, consisting of 197 members. SHG’s are structures for collective saving and facilitating access to credit. They are also to be seen as an instrument of empowerment for women.
  • 570 people received access to pensions or benefits for widows that they were not even aware of.
  • 586 workers received a health & accident insurance, paid for by the employers. Manjari hopes to extend the scheme to all workers in 2017.
  • 69 cobble yards & traders have taken the issue of banning child labour seriously with violation of this ban being sanctioned. 14 yards have even installed camera surveillance
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Welcome to our blog !

Welcome to our blog. Our vision: no child is left behind; meaning that no child should be working and every child has the right to a good education and the right to enjoy childhood. The Indian Sandstone cobble industry is tarnished with stories of poor working conditions, bad labour practices and endemic child labour. While these issues do exist, they are not the whole story. Local people, NGO’s and a number of companies, are working tirelessly to improve the lives of people who work in and around the natural stone industry. Numerous positive, community lead initiatives are taking place. We write this blog to share the good news stories coming out of this program: creating ’Child Labour Free Zones’ in Budhpura.

To learn more about the Child Labour Free Zone approach see:

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