I stepped out of the jeep and felt a squelch. We were surrounded by mud. Deep, boggy mud that tried to steal my shoes from me. The perfect environment for the pigs I saw scuttling around.
In this mud pit, behind a construction site, was one of Kolkata’s unauthorised slum populations.
If the Indian government considers a slum unauthorised it won’t give school access to the children who live there. Due to their unrecognized status, these children are one of the most neglected and hard to reach groups in urban India.
I’m a campaigner for Save the Children and was visiting with some London-based colleagues. We came to engage with the incredible child protection work our supporters help fund.
A bus full of hope
The residents of the slum greeted us with wide smiles and a warm welcome because, parked outside their makeshift homes, was a bright yellow bus.
It was our Mobile Learning Centre, which travels to 24 deprived locations around Kolkata. The bus provides interim education to children, making sure they don’t miss out on vital academic and life skills.
I climbed inside to find 15 or so children sitting on the floor in what looked like a colourful, fully-equipped classroom, just with narrower walls. I was struck by how confident and happy they seemed. They told me the bus had created a buzz of optimism about the future, not just for them, but for the whole community.
Girls’ futures are in jeopardy
For many of the girls however, that future is still in jeopardy.
One girl told me that she loved coming to the bus because it made her feel proud to show her parents what she’d learned afterwards. She wanted to become a social worker one day.
But when household resources are limited, boys education is often prioritised over girls. Unless their right to education is secure, many girls won’t be able to turn their dreams into reality.
Further west, I met a group of teenage girls. They live in an area that is a hotspot for trafficking and child marriage. Here, the promise that their child will be lifted out of poverty can convince families to part with their children.
These girls have received life skills training through our programmes. Now, they teach life skills themselves. They go door to door looking for children who are not receiving education and brings them to their classes.
They’ve not only avoided child trafficking and child marriage, but they’ve become leaders in their communities.
Meeting these girls showed me how our programmes help break the cycle of poverty, child slavery and child marriage in India. We’re empowering children, especially girls, to raise awareness of their discrimination and to fight for their education.
But there is more to do
When a child is living in poverty in India, and unable to go to school, they are at risk of being sold by their families for domestic labour, and often end up being trafficked to the cities for domestic or even sexual slavery.
Being a girl means you’re more likely to be out of school and therefore at greater risk of being sold for domestic labour. On top of this, being a girl carries the additional risk of being given up for child marriage.
India has the largest number of child brides in the world. 47% of Indian women are married before the age of 18, and 18% before the age of 15.
Help us reach every last girl.
Names changed to protect identity.