Anoyara Khatun’s childhood was relatively free from the poverty that typically affected other families in her village in North 24 Parganas district in West Bengal.
Anoyara was pampered and doted on by her father, aunts and uncles. Out of her four sisters, two had been married off before the age of 10, as was customary in her village. Her father, who barely had any formal education, however, allowed Anoyara’s other sisters to study till Class 7 as he realized the evils of child marriage.
However, things changed when Anoyara’s father, who was the sole breadwinner of her family, passed away. Anoyara’s mother was illiterate and her brother was too young to shoulder any responsibilities.
When a distant relative suggested to Anoyara’s mother that he could take her to Kolkata, where she could stay with a family who would educate and feed her, she was excited.
Hoping that she would never again go to sleep on an empty stomach, 11-year-old Anoyara set off from Sandeshkhali with her uncle. But she had been tricked by her chacha – he had trafficked her as a domestic help and had taken her to Delhi where she was treated with monstrosity. She was not fed, education was off the table, she could not contact her family. Once, the ‘owner’ had even tried throwing boiling water at her.
This ordeal of starvation and abuse continued for months, before she was rescued by Pavnar Dhagagia Social Welfare Society, a local partner of international NGO Save the Children. They helped her go back home.
Today, 24-year-old Anoyara, is India’s foremost child rights activist. She is currently working with 80 children’s group comprising more than 1500 children to tackle child labor, malnutrition, child marriage and trafficking under the aegis of Save the Children.
In 2017, she became the youngest person to have received the Nari Shakti Award at the hands of former president Pranab Mukherjee.
Currently a BA student, she has represented India as a youth delegate at the UN General assembly in New York in 2015 and 2016. She was also bestowed with the honour of being invited by the Egypt government to participate in the World Youth Forum in Sharm Ul Sheikh in November 2019.
‘I was one of the luckier ones’
Although Anoyara escaped from a life of abuse, the emotional toll was huge. However, over time, the negative emotions made her want to bring about a change.
In an exclusive interview with MAKERS India, she said, “When I came back, I found it hard to focus on studies. There was a lot of anger and sadness; but looking at the other rescued children, I realized they had gone through much worse than me. Many of the boys and girls had even been sexually abused by their employers. The year I was rescued, more than 100 girls had been trafficked to red light areas from my village.”
The determination to safeguard other vulnerable children from exploitation and abuse pushed Anoyara to become an active member of Save The Children’s Multi Activity Centre.
She recalls, “The group I started working with was named ‘Ajker Surja’ (meaning today’s sun). It worked for children’s rights and sent drop-outs back to schools. Gradually I started mobilizing children in other villages; I had organized 40 groups and the number doubled in a few years. These groups are also actively involved with the local Child Protection Committees.”
The groups also keep a vigil on people visiting the village who could be potential traffickers. She narrates, “There was a 15-year-old girl in the village who had been rescued. In July 2009, we got word that a group of men had come to take her again. The children of the village gathered to save her and we also got the support of a few elders. My mother tried to stop me from joining them but I was adamant. We crossed ponds and flooded fields amidst the heavy rain in the evening. Ultimately we caught the culprits and dragged them to the local anganwadi centre where they were let off after a beating and a warning by the sarpanch.”
The incident was an eye-opener and showed that children’s groups could go a long way in combating child trafficking. The model of children’s groups pioneered by Save The Children with their child leaders like Anoyara was later adopted by the West Bengal government.
Moments of Doubt
Despite Anoyara’s courageous efforts, her family and the people in her village had no words of appreciation for her. She says, “In this part of the country, it is okay if a girl is working as a sex slave because it brings food on the table. But if a girl steps out of her home to spread awareness about these social evils and the importance of education, the elders in the village ostracize her. The same thing happened with me – my relatives and the villagers would say bad things about me to my mother. I was seen as a bad influence on the other children and they were asked to stay away from me.”
She confesses that her mother’s anguish and the behaviour of her extended family and her villagers have made her question herself. Besides, the work itself exacted a heavy emotional toll. Seeing the barbaric side of the human society on a daily basis was hard. “There was the temptation to turn my back on the cause and go on with my life and focus on getting an education. But the people at Save The Children gave me the strength to keep going and made me refocus on the changes I could usher in,” she reveals.
However, once Anoyara started winning accolades for her work, there was a shift in attitudes. She says, “I was the second runner up in the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2012. The same year I also received an award by the West Bengal Directorate of Social Welfare for my efforts towards bringing down child marriages. In 2014, I was invited to speak at the Global partnership for Education Replenishment Conference in Belgium. I was the first in my village to have travelled abroad and all these made people realize the importance of what I was doing. Now they support me in my endeavours.”
Anoyara wants to continue her journey of being a crusader of child rights as a professional after she completes her education. “I want to study more about this. I also want to work closely with the government in the coming years to eradicate child trafficking and child marriage,” she signs off.
(Edited by Athira Nair)