Bal Mitra Gram (BMG), a path-breaking concept introduced by Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, is a village where all the children are free from exploitation and are going to schools to pursue education. The most important and integral part of this concept is the participation of the children themselves as also the relationship of friendship that develops between the community and the children. Children get their first tryst with the principles of democracy as they elect the Bal Panchayat among themselves. The idea is to ensure the protection of rights of all children through the engagement and involvement of the villagers, the constitutional body ~ Gram Panchayat, or the village council, ~ and the local administration.

These children, when they become a part of this Panchayat as Bal Pradhans, or members, of the Bal Panchayat, are made aware of their roles and responsibilities by Bal Ashram activists. Leadership and decision-making are two paramount pillars of this arrangement, which these girls clearly exemplify in their fight against social issues that ails their villages be it child marriage or child labour. In fact, some girls, after coming in touch with the Foundation’s activists, have stopped their own child marriages and now campaign against it in their villages and neighbouring areas.

Till date 540 BMGs have been instituted in six states of India. The model has also been replicated in villages of Nepal and Uganda. To mark the International Day of Girl Child, which fell on 11 October, we bring to the readers a few case studies of some amazing girls:

Arti Kumari: Casteism, illiteracy, child labour, child marriage ~ 13-year-old Arti Kumari is fighting them all. She has initiated a fight against these social evils in her village, vowing to eradicate them.

Arti Kumari hails from village Raipura in Alwar, Rajasthan. Her father, a jawaan in the Indian Army, is posted in conflict areas of Jammu. Her mother looks after four children, including Arti. A student of Class VIII, Arti studies in the Rajkiya Uchch Prathmik Vidyalaya (Government Primary School) along with her siblings.

Arti’s village comprises many families from backward castes and tribes. Access to social spaces and village infrastructure depends very much on a person’s caste. Despite the fact that Arti never faced any discrimination, her zeal to take up the issue of casteism at such a young age is noteworthy. “How can you decide how to treat another person based on their caste? This isn’t even something they choose for themselves,” she asks passionately. One wonders about her motivation.

Arti noticed that none of the children from lower castes or the Banjara community went to school. This drove Arti and some other children to work to change this situation. As a result, today, all 96 children in her village are enrolled in schools.

When BBA started its work here in 2015, every third child in the village was either out-ofschool, or not enrolled. Many children worked in the stone quarries for a meager sum of money. The area is also considered to be a source point for child trafficking.

The Banjara community, a nomadic tribe, lives on the outskirts of the village, ranking the lowest in the societal hierarchy. None of the Banjara children from here ever went to school until 2015. Guided by the activists, Arti along with other children, learnt about the rights children have. They were astonished to see how these rights were violated regularly, especially of children from the Banjara and other low-caste communities. This realisation made the group decide to take the matter into their own hands.

Thus motivated, Arti contested the Bal Panchayat elections and became an elected member. As a child leader, Arti, and the other children organised rallies, door-to-door campaigns and personal meetings with parents, highlighting the consequences of ill-practices like child marriage, child labour, abuse and exploitation of children. With the support of village elders and activists, they were even pivotal in stopping child marriages in their village.

Convincing the Banjara parents to send their children to school wasn’t an easy task. “Who will take the cattle out for grazing?” “Who will go earn for the family?” “Will the children from the upper caste even talk to our children?” Questions like these hounded the Bal Panchayat members.

Therefore, the group changed their strategy. They started regularly engaging the Banjara children in sports and playing with them. Slowly, they convinced the Banjara children about the importance of education and play. The Bal Panchayat members and the Banjara children together convinced the parents to send their children to school. In the second year, the Bal Panchayat had a Banjara boy elected as the Sarpanch (head), which was groundbreaking. Arti, as the secretary of the council, continued to focus on regularisation of education for children from the Banjara community.

The group also campaigned against caste-based discrimination, and for improving the quality of education and infrastructure in their schools.

The Bal Panchayat members come up with innovative ways to challenge various regressive practices. The latest was on harvest festival, Makar Sankranti, when the members decided to feast in the houses of children belonging to the so-called lower castes.

The Gram Panchayat also recognizes this Bal Panchayat and thus acts swiftly on children’s concerns. Due to their impact, the Block Development Officer and other administrative officials also cooperate with them.

They have collectively been able to contribute to the village’s development tremendously, especially the condition of schools. Improved attendance of enrolled children owing to regular teachers, improved meals, better student-teacher ratio, and better play grounds have been some of the major achievements of this collaboration.

At present, the children are trying to get an open drain adjacent to their school diverted. The drain overflows during the rains and spews waste around the school and the play ground. “The Gram Panchayat has told us that they will act on this soon,” said Arti, with a twinkle in her eyes that speaks of the confidence these kids have in themselves.

Tara Banjara: Belonging to a poor family from Nimdi village, District Alwar, Rajasthan, Tara Banjara, 13, had always wanted to study but her deprived community could not allow her to do so.

She belongs to Banjara Community, which is mostly illiterate. Since they migrate from one place to another, they do not give importance to education. At a very young age of 7, Tara would clean the road during construction together with her mother and sometimes took care of her younger siblings while her mother was away for work. Tara’s parents were not keen to send her to school.

After Bal Ashram staff convinced them of the importance of education, Tara was enrolled in the school in January 2013, and became the first generation school learner. She is in Class IX now. Along with academic education, Tara is also active in social work. She has learnt about issues like child labour, child marriage, intoxication and child trafficking. She is actively advocating for children’s rights, particularly for girls, for the last five years. Through her initiative, she managed to enroll seven children in school. Now there is no child labour in Tara’s community and child marriage is completely eliminated in Nimdi.

Lalita Duhariya: Belonging to a poor family of Dera village, Viratnagar Block, Rajasthan, Lalita Duhariya, 14, is an active member of Bal Panchayat since 2015. She has emerged as a child leader who has been fighting for girls’ education and girls’ rights in her as well as the neighboring villages. Her father is a construction labourer and mother is a housewife.

She wants to be a doctor and want to serve in rural parts of India. Lalitha has been actively campaigning against castism and untouchability in her village. To set an example, she initiated and participated in “communal lunch” on the occasion of Makar Sankranti. Lalitha, along with other Bal Panchayat members, went door-to-door to the family of all castes and had lunch together. She thus spread the message to the entire community to join hands and work together for the development of the community.

Children, who dropped out of the schools, were engaged in domestic help. She motivated the parents to send their children to school which led to school enrolments and regularisation of school dropout children in the schools.

Through her initiative and awareness campaign, 12 children were re-enrolled in the school. Her campaign together with Bal Panchayat led to the complete elimination of child marriage in her village and from the neighbouring villages.

Payal Jangid: A child rights prodigy from the hinterland of Rajasthan, Payal shows that where there is a will there shall always be a way! A glint in the eye and determination in the walk marks the 17-year-old Payal Jangid from Hinsla in Rajasthan. The infectious teen rubs off positivity with a resolve to stand up for what is right for the children ~ a voice that is accepted in her native village.

Elected as Sarpanch (Head) of Bal Mitra Gram (BMG), she was also chosen as jury for the World Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child. Payal, the second Bal Pradhan of the Bal Panchayat (Children’s Council) in 2013, got engaged in community work through the mechanism of BMG set up by Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation. After foiling her own marriage at the age of 11 by raising voice against her parents and especially her grandmother, Payal, along with other children of the village, began protests against the social evil of child marriage and Ghunghat Pratha (women veiling their faces).

Within a year, everyone could see conditions changing. Women, as well as children started coming out and voicing their opinion. People started getting more aware of their rights and responsibilities.

Eventually, Hinsla became a child marriage-free village. This was a victory for Payal. In 2013, she was chosen as the jury for World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child for her community work. In Sweden she got the opportunity to meet other achievers like herself. “I was chosen to pick up the Queen. It made me feel special,” recalls the young girl.

In 2017, she received the Young Achiever Award by the global sports and fitness brand Reebok. Recently, Payal Jangid was given the prestigious Changemaker Award by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the Goalkeepers Global Goals Awards held in New York.

This award has been conferred upon her in recognition of her work for abolition of child marriage in her village, Hinsla and other neighboring villages. As a Bal Pradhan, she undertook a lot of field activities to empower not only children but also women of her village. As a child rights advocate, she pleads for children to come together and raise their voices against any injustices done to them.

“Until and unless children themselves realise that they have rights, they won’t be able to relate. However, there should be someone to guide the child through,” added Payal.

Champa Kumari: As vice-president, National Maha Bal Panchayat (NMBP), 13-year-old Champa Kumari, who won the prestigious Diana Award for her work against child marriages in mica-mining areas of Jharkhand, was felicitated and honoured by Jharkhand Governor Dropdi Murmuat Raj Bhawanin Ranchi. Champa Kumari was once a school dropout and would go to mines to collect mica as her education was never a priority for her family.

In 2016, Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation intervened in Champa’s village to end practices like child marriage, child labour, child trafficking and all forms of child exploitation, as well as ensuring 100 per cent enrolment of children in school.

With the efforts of a KSCF activist, she was enrolled in school. She is now the president of Jamdar village’s children council and also the vice-president of National level children’s council. Having worked near mica mines, she understands how hazardous it is.

Champa not only led the initiative to spread awareness about child marriage but intervened in two child marriages in her village, successfully foiling them. Champa’s village is a changed one now and she has emerged as the catalyst for the change. Being the vice-president of National Level Bal Panchayat, she presented the Children’s Charter of Demands along with co-members to the incumbent Union Minister of state for Labor and Employment Santosh Gangwar.

She also presented Children’s Manifesto to the British High Commissioner and Parliamentarians and had also shared the stage with Chief Minister of Jharkhand Raghubar Das and Nobel Peace Laureate Shri Kailash Satyarthi for the cause of making mica supply chain child labour free in Koderma.

Pinki Kumari: Belonging to a lower middle class family, 16-year-old Pinki Kumari’s father works as a cook and a waiter in a hotel. Her mother is a housewife. The family income is around Rs 6500 per month. Due to her family’s monetary and social issues Pinki Kumari had to drop her education after Class V.

Since the BMG initiative started in her village she aspired to be part of the Bal Panchayat. She was elected as a member of the Bal Panchayat and was vocal about the prevailing issues. She also encouraged other children to know about their basic rights and to be a part of the Bal Panchayat.

The Bal Panchayat members intervened when her parents decided to fix her marriage. Despite their rigorous counseling her parents did not relent. Other stakeholder groups were also involved and they collectively prevented the marriage plans. Now, Pinki wishes to study further and be independent.

She is now getting admission into Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidhyalaya. She aspires to be a teacher.

(Compiled by Kailash Satyarthi’s Children Foundation)