Anuradha Bhosale is a renowned grassroots women’s rights and anti-child labor activist based in the Kolhapur district in Maharashtra, India where more than 35,000 children are involved in daily labor for local industries.
Speaking softly and small in stature, it would be easy to mistakenly overlook her demonstrable power as a forceful agent of change. A former child-laborer herself at the age of six, Anurahda has spent the past 20 years fighting for the prevention of child exploitation, labor, trafficking, and female infanticide. This is a woman you would be wise not to underestimate.
“I was born into a rigid Catholic family,” she recalls. “There were so many brothers and sisters my parents could not support education for all of us.”
“I was forced to work at the age of six as a domestic worker for a family. As I was growing as a child, those were not happy days. The pain always remains in the heart,” she says.
“I remember thinking once I grow up I would like to give back to so many children.”
From the beginning of her work, Anuradha recognized that child-labor was a cyclical phenomena oftentimes beginning with women in vulnerable positions. Empowering, educating and uniting disadvantaged women to build sustainable futures in a male dominated society has therefore been the backbone of her anti child-labor work and mission. She sees herself as more fortunate than many.
“Those people I worked for as a child gave me the chance to go to school. If I got my work done outside of school hours, they let me go. There were many struggles, but I got a good education.”
“At the age of eleven I worked and supported my own education. I didn’t take help from my parents. I was self-sufficient from the age of eleven. I had no childhood,” she says.
“After my education I got good jobs and earned good money but wanted to do something that was rooted in my heart.”
After graduating with a Master of Social Work in Mumbai, she was exposed to the needs of migrant children who crushed rocks used in paving roads. She introduced these families to the principles of micro-finance and assisted in setting up self-help groups for women.
Anuradha married in 1996 and later had two children. Throughout her marriage, neither her husband nor her in-laws supported Anuradha in her social work. Her family duties began each morning at 4:00 am cleaning the pots, washing the floors and clothes and preparing meals. Her marriage would later deteriorate to the degree in which her husband and in-laws forced her and her two young children out of the home with only the clothes on their back.
This episode in her life only made her resolve grow stronger.
“I had no thought of losing any hopes. I become more powerful. I determined that I would work with other women,” she says.
She started offering counseling for women. “The children’s rescue home and women’s right campaign- they go hand in hand. Women that are migrant workers keep their children on the road. We want the mother’s life to be secure. The challenges are interrelated and so we work with both these groups,” she says.
Searching for long-term solutions to the root of the issues surrounding child labor, she founded the Women and Child Rights Campaign (WCRC), devoted to educating and empowering widowed, divorced and abandoned women–those at the greatest risk of sending their children into the work force out of necessity. Anuradha formalized her rights-based work for sustainable development at the grassroots level and works to empower women through education and training to effectively deal with government laws relating to education, labor and benefits.
At grassroots organizing meetings in rural villages, Anuradha drives change by providing marginalized rural women and children access to information regarding their legal civil rights. She motivates them to unite, do for themselves, pursue education and act on their own issues. The WCRC has a substantial presence in 15 rural villages in a 45 km radius around Kolhapur. Sixty adults and children have been trained as leaders and now identify and act on their own issues.
“What we do is all the democratic way,” she says.
Anuradha teaches the women and children she works with civil disobedience as a way to make social change. She recalls one of the early protests for gaining entitlements. She organized over 1000 women who were widows, divorced or abandoned with no income. These women embarked on a thirty-four hour train ride to India’s assembly session.
“These women did not have tickets as they had no money, but we all boarded the train anyway,” she said. When police confronted them they replied, “Who is responsible for our poverty? Let them answer.” The women were allowed to come on the train without incident, and it became a big issue in the media.
In 2010, with the assistance of the trained village adults and children by the WCRC, 3,741 widows, divorced and abandoned women would start to receive their government benefits. Their children no longer needed to be institutionalized and now reside with their families again.
“Finally these women got their pensions after sleeping in front of the assembly doors. That was the power of media. We got it,” she smiles.
Changing Child Labor Laws
Child labor is a complicated problem in India, and she has faced many challenges. The Indian government had long prohibited any school drop-outs from ever being allowed to attend a government school again. Due to the transient nature of migrant communities, migrant children are a greater risk for being considered drop-outs. This drastically increased the likelihood that they would be forced into child labor practices. Anuradha is also the director of AVANI which rescues, shelters and provides education for these children.
Early on Anuradha realized that simply working to rescue and educate these children was not sufficient. She needed to work toward changing the very laws that were hindering children from being granted their basic rights as Indian citizens. Analyzing the roles of various departments of government, Anuradha realized that there were indeed many laws, rights and benefits that were in existence yet simply not being granted to women and children.
To address these gaps, Anuradha worked with others to draft the Right to Education bill to provide free and compulsory education for all Indian children between the ages of 6 – 14. Anuradha worked for the next eight years lobbying the government to vote on their acceptance of the bill and making it into a law. “The Right to Education Act” was finally passed into law in April of 2010. However, this law only provided for the educational opportunities of children between the ages 6 – 14. As pleased as AVANI was for its role in the passing of the law, they then shifted their focus to the education of migrant children between the ages of 3 – 6 years. In response, AVANI began creating and operating schools directly in the brickyards for migrant children of this age group. To date 36 schools, housing 50 students each, have been established to educate the drop out students and children of migrant laborers, especially from the brickyards.
“For the migrant children we put them in rescue shelters. We provide clothing, shelter, food and they take a base course to regularize them regarding hygiene and basic social skills. We counsel the family to help their mother become self-reliant. Then the child can turn back to the mother for support,” she says.
“We also work with the police and the judiciary. We want to work with the system and train the police and judges how they can look differently at these problems. We want to make it sustainable by changing the systems. That provides better results for these women and children.”
As director of AVANI, Anuradha has facilitated the rescue of 341 child laborers, provided 5,604 migrant children the right to health care and education, organized the construction of schools inside the brickyards and established residential homes for migrant children.
“We don’t use weapons. Whatever the system of laws provide in our favor, we use it as power. It comes to that,” she says.
While Anuradha Bhosale is visibly at the helm of the women’s right and anti child labor cause in her region, her message will always be rooted in the belief that long-term change and growth can only be accomplished by encouraging people to educate and do for themselves.
The Mighty Sparrow
Asked what keeps her from not being overwhelmed she says, “There are a lot of challenges, a lot of difficulties and resistance to overcome. But at the end of the day I have accepted this. It is rooted in my blood and my heart not to fall apart. I just go ahead and make change. I keep my positive attitude as I know I can bring changes to many lives.”
Anuradhu’s Inspiration Story
Anuradhu likes to tell this story. “It keeps me going,” she says.
In a big forest, there is a great fire. All the trees and everything in the forest are burning and the wildlife is disturbed and fleeing in panic. As the fire increases more and more, one sparrow flies to a nearby pond and takes a little bit of water and puts it in her mouth and drops it on the raging fire. Her friends say, “Are you stupid? There is no use in what you are doing. Why don’t you come away with us? Why do you do this? It won’t make a difference.”
The sparrow gives a very clever answer. She says, “I know my little bit of water will not make a big difference but I know I will be remembered for one small thing. I did not live as the one who ran away.”
“Whatever big problem you face, you are small, but a good attitude can change the world,” she says. “That is what I see. Life is beautiful. At the end of your life you don’t take anything with you. No wealth, nothing. You just die with satisfaction that you helped so many people. This is enough.”
“I have chosen this life. There are so many people who are worse off than us in the world, they may be mentally challenged or ill or hungry. I think all the time, I am the happiest person in the world,” she says.
“I don’t need to make a very big deal about my past situations. It’s over. I am so optimistic for what we can do for the future.”