Soni Khatun, a 15-year-old student who lives in “EJC basti’, Kolkata, went door to door asking children whether they go to school or if their families are planning to get them married off. Soni and her neighbour Saraswati Dhanuk, also 15 along with 13 other children from the slum are part of the Shaktiman group, reported Indian Express. The group has members who are school dropouts themselves, and now are busy fighting child labour, stopping marriages and sending children back to school.
Today, Soni and Saraswati are the popular faces in the basti. As per IE report, the basti is home to around 1,300 families, near the under-construction Metro line in Taratolla, on land belonging to Kolkata Port trust and the Railways. Most of the residents in the basti, live in shanties and some “pucca houses” are migrants from Bihar and UP.
Soni told IE,“Here, no one messes with us.” She added,”Once we identify a child working in a garage or not going to school, we form a group and visit their homes. We talk to the parents and convince them to send the child to school. Initially, no one would listen to us. But then, we started collecting people to support us. Now, everyone accepts us.”
Soni with a pride in her voice went on to say,”Recently, we identified seven children working in garages in our area and were able to send four of them to schools. Before that, we managed to send 13 children, who were all dropouts, back to school. We also stopped two child marriages.”
Shaktiman, named after the popular comic-book hero and launched six years ago, is a collaborative effort involving the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, or Sarva Shiksha Mission as it is named in West Bengal, the state government and Save the Children, an NGO, along with local body representatives and schools.
Today, there are 183 children, under 19 groups, who are active in 14 slum areas of Kolkata under the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.