In Haryana’s Daulatpur village, technology and societal developments have barely made inroads into the lives of the rural women. Young girls and women in this state, which historically has had one of the lowest sex ratios in the country, are exposed to social evils such as child marriage, child labour, and female foeticide.
However, prevalence of these evils has not deterred young changemaker Anju Verma. Daughter of a truck driver, the 17-year-old is singularly devoted to fuelling an attitudinal change among the people in her village and its neighbouring districts. And in this mission, she is armed with the power of education and awareness.
“Child empowerment is our primary goal,” says the child rights activist. “We focus on edifying the youth and fighting against child labour and child marriage.”
The idea is to address the many social evils still prevalent in the northern pockets of India by eliminating ignorance and making people aware of the need to educate the girl child. It’s a long-drawn battle for sure, one that Anju is fighting one child at a time through her NGO Buland Udaan and the many initiatives that they have undertaken under its wing since its inception on October 8, 2017.
“For five years, I have single-handedly spearheaded the work of Buland Udaan, that is from 2012 to 2017,” Anju tells MAKERS India, sharing with us some incredible figures that reflect how her organisation has been instilling a change at the grass-root level.
A personal experience
“Buland Udaan has till date enrolled over 700 underprivileged children, who had earlier dropped out, in schools,” shares the teen activist. Besides this, the organisation has also been instrumental in stalling at least 40 incidents of child marriages, intervening in 15 cases of sexual harassment, and preventing one female foeticide.
Anju has personally spearheaded many of the initiatives and rescue work as well. With some help from her village sarpanch, she has engaged in difficult dialogues with parents of the girls in her village and convinced them to send their daughters to schools instead of employing them in menial domestic work. In more ways than one, for the teen activist, it has been a personal fight, stimulated by the overwhelming experiences from her own childhood.
“My journey hasn’t been a cakewalk,” she says. When Anju was much younger, she had decided to visit one of her relative’s place during her vacations. It was supposed to be a break for her. Unfortunately, the vacation turned out to be the most difficult 20 days of her life.
Not only was Anju forced to do all the household chores during that time but also presented with unreasonable demands from her extended family members. “I was treated like a servant and was made to do all sorts of household work without my consent,” she recalls, adding how she was the last to go to sleep every night and the first to wake up the next morning, before everyone else.
The only silver lining to this bitter experience, though, was the fact that it put Anju on the path on which she is today. And also, it bridged the gap between her and her father.
Scaling Buland Udaan
Once skeptical about his daughter’s activism, Anju’s father, a truck driver who leads a humble life on a monthly income of around Rs 20,000, is today one of her biggest sources of support. He helps her both financially – donating according to his own capacity towards the education drives – and also backs her up on days the tough work of convincing people and steering a change takes a toll on the teen activist.
It is, after all, not an easy task bringing about a transformation in a conservative society not open to changes.
“There have been many difficult experiences in this journey,” shares Anju. “People have abused me, used derogatory words for me and have made me the victim of sexism, undermining my potential since I am a girl.”
Explaining the gravity of the situation, Anju shares one particular experience. “Once, when I helped a sexual harassment victim get justice, I was given death threats over a call and I felt threatened.” And it doesn’t end with this. Even with the day-to-day activities of Buland Udaan, the child rights activist has to face many obstacles.
“Approaching families is the most challenging part of our job. Most people treat us as unwelcomed guests. They don’t open up to us and feel uncomfortable answering our questions,” Anju explains.
Buland Udaan’s obstacles are manifold. But so are the dreams and aspirations guiding Anju’s noble work. A student pursuing her bachelor’s in science, the Haryana girl aspires to crack the Civil Services Examination one day, deemed one of toughest competitive exams in the country.
Her prime objective now is to ensure that girls in the villages of Haryana and nearby states have access to menstrual hygiene products.
“We want to eradicate the period shame,” Anju quips, as she makes strategic advances with both her activism and ambition, one day at a time.
(Edited by Javed Gaihlot)