A wise man once said, “Education is the most powerful tool you can use to change the world”.
Every child is born into this world with the right to opportunity, education, freedom and safety. Societies and people stand as barriers, discriminating against children by caste, gender, race, religion, etc. Among the worst of them is caste-based discrimination which strips people of dignity and trickles down to its children preventing them from basic right of access to education and healthcare.
Statistics showed that during the years 2006-07 in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, among 51 Dalit villages of the Arundhatiyar community, it was rare to find a girl who completed 8th grade. Similar statistics showed that almost 50% children between the ages of 15-18 years worked as child labourers instead of being enrolled in school, while nearly 36% children between 15-18 years had dropped out of school. Lack of safe transport, access to schools, hygiene and healthcare and caste-based discrimination led to a significant number of children dropping out of schools. The worst of them, caste-based discrimination, made education a distant dream for children.
It was at this point that the HREPC (Human Rights Education and Protection Council), a CRY partner in Tirunelveli stepped in. Led by Mr Bharathan, a well-known activist for child rights in Tamil Nadu, the team of community organisers was ably mentored by to ensure that every child from the community received access to basic education, safety and healthcare.
Thangam, a community organiser, works in Bharatan’s team with an immense dedication to help and improve the situation in the community. She works on the ground with the children and their parents to ensure that their aspiration of education becomes a reality and not a dream.
Thangam empathises with the plight of the children from the community, having grown up in a similar environment herself. “I remember the struggle to balance homework with household work as a little child. Completing education was something we could not even dream of. I want to help these children so that they don’t lose out on the opportunities they deserve like I did”, she says, her eyes showing determination and resolve. She stands firmly against caste-based discrimination by fighting for equality of opportunity and the right to education for children from Dalit families. With a fire burning in her eyes and strength in her voice, Thangam says, “A person’s caste should not deny them the opportunities that other children are privy to”.
Thangam loves her job of acting as a support system for the children from the community. She aims to inspire and empower the children through various activities, interactions and projects.
Thangam has worked tirelessly in uplifting the community, which has resulted in several success stories. Sathya received 83% in her board exams and is now the first female from her community to pursue engineering. Under the guidance of Bharathan and Thangam, a government provision was identified for Sathya where her entire tuition fee was waived off. Similarly, Indrani now is the first female from her community to complete her MBA and Muthu Dhanumathi is the first female advocate from her community, who is now working for the District Monitoring Committee of Social Welfare Office in Tirunelveli.
“In the backdrop of the discrimination that this community has been facing for generations, it has been tough for children to finish their education. We play the role of a strong support system to the children in the midst of these hardships. We empower the parents and community members so that they come together and demand the rights of their children,” shares Maria, Thangam’s colleague.
Against all odds, Thangam and her team have relentlessly worked to ensure that the children get the opportunity to excel and maximise their potential. She says, “Every child is born with the potential to excel and they should be offered that opportunity, instead of settling for jobs that are beneath their dignity”.
Bharathan and Thangam created an environment for children where they are not hampered or dragged down by their caste status, but rather are elevated to the maximum potential. In Thangam’s line of work, she has seen Dalit children being forced to perform menial tasks and jobs that are not only beneath their dignity levels but also harmful to their health and well-being. She fought for children who are forced to leave the classroom by their teachers and perform odd jobs. They were subjected to washing vessels, bring the teachers tea or do their household work, and even wash school washrooms.
Fighting against these conditions is not easy for Thangam. She walks from door to door in an effort to reach out to parents and other community members and spread awareness about the importance of education and discourage child labour. Along Bharatan, Thangam and her colleagues have helped ensure an effective functioning of schools and mobilise parents and children to work towards education.
Thangam engages with school teachers and health care officials at the Gram Sabha and Panchayat. Here, after speaking to children, she brings back their issues and concerns in front of the Panchayat. She wants the strengthen schools and health care so that the children in the villages can have access to the basic rights of education and healthcare.
A successful project started by the community organisers has been the Children’s Collective. Thangam says that here, children are provided with a safe and open platform to come and voice their side out. They are given the opportunity to discuss and debate about issues they feel require immediate attention and are encouraged to talk about their dreams and aspirations. Through this platform she helps them engage, participate, speak up, think critically and work for the betterment of the community on the whole.
The project has seen a successful impact in Tirunelveli. There has been about 50% reduction in dropouts from school and a vast 71% reduction in child labour of children between 15-18 years. The dedication of Thangam and her team in successfully mobilising the community has resulted in ALL children completing Class 10, a feat that has never been achieved before. Additionally, within the last three years, three new middle schools, three new high schools and five new higher secondary schools were opened, where drinking water and proper washrooms were provided for the students.
Thangam has encouraged girls like Muthu, Indirani and Sathya to do their part of giving back and helping in the upliftment of their communities. Muthu Dhanumathi takes tuitions for the children in the village. Indrani uses the Children’s Collective as a platform to take tuitions for the children in her village as in an effort to help increase literacy.
425 children from these areas have been enrolled in professional courses within the last three years. CRY and project partner HREPC has helped spread awareness about the importance of child rights within these communities and given these Dalit families the motivation to stand up and respectfully gain the equal opportunities they deserve.
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