Helping street kids fight abuse

Arunodhaya, a city-based NGO, has been rescuing and rehabilitating street and working children, by engaging them in art and other community-based activities
Boys rescued by Arunodhaya perform a street play to spread awareness on substance abuse
Boys rescued by Arunodhaya perform a street play to spread awareness on substance abuse

Chennai

On a beautiful November morning in Chennai’s pseudo winter, passers-by and residents of one of the quaint bylanes of Korukkupet, stopped by a mini truck that was transformed into a makeshift stage on which a group of young boys performed a play. One of them played the role of Yama, the God of death, and another played a cartwheel. Also part of the group was Satya (name changed), a boy with speech impairment, who stepped forward to narrate what made him happy, angry, sad and scared. 
Having battled drug addiction from a young age, the boys performed the story of their life — the violence they faced and the struggle of overcoming the abuse. They were among the 130 boys who were rescued from different parts of North Chennai by Arunodhaya, a centre for street and working children. Formed by its director Virgil D’ Sami in 1992, the NGO has been working with the Chennai and Thiruvallur slum communities to uproot child labour, exploitation and promote children’s rights. “I started it with mainly two ideas. First, child labour in any form cannot be justified, and second, no matter what the circumstances every child deserves the right to education,” explains Virgil, who has a Master’s in Social Work. 
Virgil started working in the Korukkupet industrial area where children constituted a shocking 63 per cent of the labour force then. “Although the metal factories they were working in didn’t come under the list of prohibited workplaces under The Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986, a lot of children, including those as young as 8 years of age, sustained grave injuries and some even lost their lives. So, we took up the issue with ILO and successfully rehabilitated the kids working there by enrolling them in educational institutions,” reminisces Virgil. Over the years, Virgil has rehabilitated more than 7,000 young girls and boys, who now lead dignified and secure lives. Arunodhaya conducts regular workshops in schools and colleges to spread the message about child labour and exploitation.
Virgil adopted a rather interesting approach for the rehabilitation. She ensured concerted action to tackle the issue – including both requisite legal procedures and a community-based approach. “We believe in empathybased social transformation so most of the volunteers with us are those who themselves have successfully fought their struggles be it with alcohol addiction, substance abuse or child abuse,” adds Virgil. 
To spread the message to a larger audience, Virgil involved Wind Dancer’s Trust who help the inmates narrate their stories through street plays. “We taught them the basics of theatre and then a mix of activities to help them get comfortable. They slowly opened up about their experience on how they were introduced to drugs, their family situation and what their future looked like. Their development was so remarkable that the children themselves managed to make a powerful script to narrate their tales. They want to do more such plays and spread awareness,” she shares. 
However, the transformation isn’t easy in all cases. “To ask a child to stop doing something that gets him, and in many cases his entire family one square meal a day, is extremely difficult. For instance, there was a boy who worked in a chemical waste disposal site, a job that earned his daily bread. While we thought we’d successfully rehabilitated him by enrolling him in school, his mother on the other hand forced him to get back to work. This is where we need to work as a community,” explains Virgil, who recently rescued over 25 kids who worked as rag pickers. Rag picking is prohibited under Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) (A) Bill, 2012. “However, despite regulations, children continue to be a part of this hazardous process and very little is done to rescue them from the dumpyard.” 
Though it’s an uphill task to rescue these kids, Virgil says it’s crucial to make the effort. “While some kids might recover in a few months, a few others can take over a year. Irrespective of the difficulties, we must send them back to school as responsible and confident individuals,” she adds.

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