Reethu, a story teller, a person often found between the pages of a book or contemplating the nuances of life.
"For the last seven years, I have been working towards the eradication of child labour. My dream is to see a child-friendly India where children will have a say in matters concerning them, where children can study and can exercise all their rights," says 17-year-old Anju Verma, founder and CEO of Buland Udaan.
A child rights champion, the teenager started Buland Udaan, an organisation working for child welfare in 2017. Till date, Verma and her team at Buland Udaan have enrolled over 700 students in school, intervened in 15 sexual-harassment cases, stopped over 40 child marriages and prevented one female foeticide.
Hailing from Daulatpur village in Haryana's Fatehabad district, Verma was exposed to gender discrimination at an early age. "After I was born, my grandmother did not eat for five days, saying that a second girl had come to the house," Verma told The Logical Indian.
However, it was a summer vacation at her aunt's place that paved the way for Verma's advent into child rights issues.
"As I was confined to the four walls of my home, I was very excited to go to my aunt's place for summer vacations. Like any other 10-year-old, I was looking forward to a great month-long summer vacation. However, I had no clue what lay in store for me," says Verma, who was in class 5 at the time.
From day one, the 10-year-old was forced to wake up at five in the morning and make tea for 15 people. From cutting vegetables to making rotis and cleaning the house, Verma's aunt made her do all the house chores, with no regard to her age or inexperience.
"My aunt humiliated me for not knowing how to make tea. Every time I made a mistake, there were severe repercussions. Late into the night, I had to wash the utensils all by myself.
I was forced to do all the menial tasks of my extended family. I even had to massage their body; can you imagine how horrible I would have felt? I was treated like a servant," Verma recounts.
"My family would tell me that all girls have to do these tasks, so much so that I felt like girls were only born to do household chores," she adds.
Verma's family also prevented her from talking to her parents. Whenever her father called, her aunt warned her about sharing her ordeal with him.
Finally, 20 days later, her father came to her aunt's village for urgent work. Verma then took the opportunity to convince her father to take her home.
"That day is still fresh in my memory. In tears, I ran to my father and begged him to take me home. I lied that I had important school work and convinced my father to take me with him. It was only after reaching home that I felt free," says Verma.
"After the incident, I wished I was born a boy so that I could live free," says Verma.
Following the ordeal at her aunt's place, Verma grew more sensitive to the issues around her. Back in school, one of her friends, who was only about 11 years of age, had got married. She also noticed that few girls were constantly at the receiving end for not completing homework.
"When I asked them, they told me that they were not free like me. Unlike my parents who let me focus on my studies, their parents forced them to do all the house chores. They had to cook breakfast before coming to school and then go back home to make dinner. In addition, they had to do all the cleaning and take care of the buffaloes. After all this, they neither had the time nor the energy to study," she says.
Later, she raised her concerns with one of her teachers. "It was then that I heard the term 'child labour' for the first time. He made me understand what all constituted child labour and told me that it was a punishable offence, where they could be imprisoned for upto 6 months," says Verma.
"Till then I was not sure of what was happening. After talking to my teacher, I realised that I was doing the right thing."
With her new-found confidence, she went from house-to-house, of the girls in her class, to confront the parents. She often lied to her parents that she was going to her grandmother's house. However, the parents were not ready to listen.
"It was then that my teacher told me to approach the village sarpanch for help. Although it was no easy task, I was able to convince them and with few from the panchayat, I went back to the houses. With their help, we told them that they would be fined Rs 50,000 for indulging in child labour and could be imprisoned. This scared them and they agreed to let their kids study," says Verma.
Through her efforts, the girls in her class who used to score a mere 33 per cent, started scoring nearly 70 per cent. The fruition of her efforts only propelled her to do more. She enquired in her village and found out that there were many children who did not attend school regularly.
"I made excuses at home and went around my village to make it child-labour free. I also made sure that every child regularly attended school," says Verma.
After she enrolled 100 students from nearby villages in schools, she got invited to a TEDx talk in September 2017. It was after talking to various experts at the event that she realised that child rights issues were rampant across the country. This realisation led to the inception of Buland Udaan in October 2017.
With the help of her cousin brother Pawan Verma, she set up a small team of seven members to help children. It soon expanded to a dedicated team of 20 members. Today, Buland Udaan has nearly 70 volunteers, consisting mainly of school students. They also have BSc and MSc students who help children with studies and counselling.
Every Sunday, the team goes from house to house asking people if they need help. If anyone alerts them about a particular case, they go to the child's home to confront the parents. They also do regular follow-ups to ensure that child labour cases do not repeat. The organisation is also planning to collaborate with industry professionals to ensure jobs for those who complete their studies.
Talking about her support systems, Verma says, "My biggest strength is my parents, without their support, I could not have achieved anything."
"My father, Rajender Kumar, is a truck driver and even if he makes Rs 20,000 a month, he sets aside nearly Rs 10,000 each month for me. He told me to focus on Udaan and that he will take care of everything else. Through the organisation, he is impacting the lives of many children," she adds.
When asked about awards and recognitions, the gutsy teenager says, "I don't consider awards as an achievement. If I can get at least one more child enrolled in school, then that's my achievement."
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