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The experience of the Ika Chaalu project has demonstrated that the process of budling social norms towards gender equality and adolescent girls’ education is challenging and slow but it can be done, as witnessed by the following examples from the field:

*The convention for adolescent girls organized by the Ika Chaalu project on 1 December, 2019, took place in Hyderabad just a few days after the brutal rape and murder of Priyanka Reddy. However, instead of despair, this event had an atmosphere of firm resolve and determination. The girls were angry but knew that anger would not change things. They passionately and rationally voiced their claims for freedom from violence and demanded their right to equality. One such voice was of a girl from Hyderabad who said that the project had given her the encouragement to confront, discuss and change her situation. Her message was clear and strong: “how can parents be brave when incidents like this happen. The first action should be ours. We need to oppose this; we need to raise our voices”. A constant refrain of the meeting was that it was wrong that girls should end up paying the price for violence perpetrated by boys.

*As a result of the discussion in the Adolescent Girls’ Committees, girls have started to approach Gram Panchayat’s and claim a space where they can conduct meetings, have a library and reading room, a centre for the distribution of hygiene kits, and plan for events such as hoisting the flag for Independence Day. Many Gram Panchayat’s have obliged and found a conducive and dedicated space where the girls can meet. Some have gone further with the support they have started offering to adolescent girls. A few have taken the unprecedented step of allowing girls to sit in rotation in the Panchayat meetings.

*The lockdown proved to be a difficult time for adolescent girls. With schools closing and families losing their livelihood and incomes, many parents started arranging marriages for their daughters in stealth. However, the girls resisted this, and members of the Girls’ Committees alerted the MV Foundation field mobilisers, who in turn took action. For example, a field mobiliser in Nutankal received a call from a member of the Girls’ Committee that a girl from Yedavelli was due to be married. She contacted the Tehsildar and the Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) and along with the Anganwadi Worker and Child Rights Protection Forum member, the officials counseled the girl and her parents and prevented the marriage.

* During the lockdown, MVF mobiliser Dhanamma got to know from members of the Girls’ Committee that Uma’s parents were planning on getting her married in the second week of May 2021 and that the family were going to meet the priest to fix an auspicious date and time for the wedding. Dhanamma contacted the Sarpanch, who in turn called the priest and warned him against fixing a date and solemnizing the marriage. When the girls’ parents arrived in the priest’s house, he asked them to wait. He immediately called Dhanamma, who called Childline for help. In an hours’ time all the relevant functionaries arrived in the priest’s house. They warned the parents against printing invitation cards or going ahead with the wedding. The Supervisor of the Anganwadi (employed by the department of Women and Child Welfare and officially in charge of the well-being of adolescent girls in her village) was instructed to visit Uma’s home every other day to see if she was safe and has been told that she will be held accountable should Uma get married.

These examples are testimony to the changes in societal norms regarding adolescent girls thatg have come about as a result of the efforts of the Ika Chaalu project. Girls are now able to exercise agency and demand their rights; parents have stopped forcing girls into early marriage and allow them to follow their dream of getting a secondary education; the functionaries of the system are defending the rights of girls; even traditionally conservative bodies like caste panchayats and priests are coming round to the idea of arguing against early marriage and refusing to solemnising marriages of minors. But this process was not without its challenges.

In the course of its work on child labour and education, the MV Foundation conceptualized and developed innovative strategies for changing social norms around these issues ( The Ika Chaalu project (ongoing since 2014) built on this experience to engage with the social norms that prevent adolescent girls from realizing their right to education and freedom from early marriage, gender discrimination, violence and harassment. While the methodology for changing social norms remained the same, there were certain specificities that had to be resolved in addressing patriarchy.

The process of building social norms around child labour and education had resulted in getting ALL children, including girls, into school till the completion of class 10. However, the continuation in school till completion of secondary education was fraught with gender discrimination and violence on adolescent girls and societal norms of patriarchy came into play in full force. At every step there were biases against girls. Even when the girls had aspirations for higher education, they had to contend with pressures from the family that controlled their time and leisure and restricted their freedom and mobility. Parents feared social stigma and damage to the family’s reputation lest the girl were to fall in love or elope, and even if she were a victim of sexual violence. Girls’ safety was of paramount concern to them. The community too had its own perceptions about the reputation of a girl overstepping her prescribed behaviour. Existing norms about child marriage, sexuality, safety, and the behaviour expected of a girl had to be exposed, challenged and replaced in the Ika Chaalu project. In fact, the gender biases in each girl’s journey to school had to be addressed. Indeed, many more nuances were to be introduced to create an atmosphere in support of girls’ education and gender equality in the family, in schools and other institutions and in public spaces. This made the work with adolescent girls more complex.

Deeper engagement with the family

MVF’s interventions had to start at a micro level with each family, beginning with addressing the family division of labour, access to food and other consumption, leisure, play and friendships. A girls’ claim for equal space in the family was contentious; it disturbed the equations among family members and had to be resolved.

Gradually, norms began to shift. Within the family, new practices of a relationship between father and daughter began to emerge, with girls talking to their fathers about their aspiration for higher education and imploring them not to get them married till they felt ready for it. Norm changes also allowed for the family giving equal opportunity to their daughters and supporting her higher education, even when it involved travelling long distances. It also enabled girls to leave home and live in hostels in their pursuit of education. Parents gained strength to contend with insinuations from the community and neighbours who constantly nudged them with proposals of eligible bachelors for their daughters.

The privileges the brothers enjoyed in a family vis a vis their sisters also changed in support of her education. They too had to share in the domestic chores and take part in work that was seen as a gendered domain. The adjustments in time and space meant a transformation in attitudes of masculinity towards gender equality. From a position where girls ate the left-over food, boys now began to share their meals, having become aware of gender discrimination and its consequences for girls. Indeed, this had the added benefit of encouraging boys to support their mothers against domestic violence perpetuated by their fathers, who were often also alcoholics.

Early marriage

The issue of stopping early marriage was also a contentious one. A new set of groups had to be won over to establish a social norm. The MVF mobilisers had to contend with powerful caste panchayats which reinforced and justified patriarchal norms. Defying such powerful caste elders, who often mediated on issues of marriage, was not easy. Even priests who solemnised and blessed marriages were instrumental in perpetuating discrimination against girls. They were significant barriers to adolescent girl’s education and had to be won over so they would be in favour of girls and against gender discrimination. This meant contending with entrenched traditional forces that had a moral presence in the lives of the people. This had not been the case in the earlier campaigns about child labour and education.

The role of traditional institutions could be contested only when more secular ones such as gram panchayats, schools and the law enforcement agencies were invoked to establish new values of gender equality and education of adolescent girls. But, in the beginning, even the functionaries of the system such as schoolteachers and the police were not ready to accept the idea of girls’ mobility and they even questioned some parents for giving so much liberty to their daughters. After repeated engagement with secular institutions, as well as with caste panchayats and religious leaders, and after seeking their support to be part of the solution and not the problem, they have also changed their stance. They, too, have been sensitised to take action in support of gender equality and girls’ education.

With every instance of early marriage, positions in the community became polarised, with some individuals, family members and neighbours arguing for a girl to be married and others putting forth their views about girls’ education and gender equality, arguing that early marriage was harmful. Unlike the issue of child labour which was specific to the particular families that either employed children or sent children to work, the issue of adolescent girls’ equality and gender discrimination was pervasive, affecting every household in the community, leading to introspection about the unfair treatment meted out to girls and women.

Issues of sexuality and the absence of a vocabulary for open debate

Changing social norms on sexuality required a new vocabulary as such issues were seldom openly debated or discussed. MVF mobilisers enabled the community to be regard instances of girls’ elopement or falling in love as a natural process of adolescence and growing up. Now, these issues are being discussed at the gram panchayat level and girls raise the issue of sexual violence in the Kishore Balika Sanghams (girls’ committees). From a position where sexuality was not a point of discussion at all, clear stands are being taken on the matter in favour of girls. Such dilemmas about personhood and discussions on bodily integrity and autonomy were not explicit in the course of establishing a social norm against child labour and in favour of education.

At first, teachers would not even acknowledge that gender discrimination was an issue in schools and initially resisted the idea of MVF mobilisers advising them on girls’ education. They construed it as a threat to their authority in schools. Due to constant interaction with school teachers, there was a change in their attitude towards adolescent girls. There is no longer policing or surveillance of children lest they ‘fall in love’ or even elope. Friendships between boys and girls are seen as normal. In short, teachers have become more sensitive.

Social Norms and Children’s Agency

There are instances when parents willingly send their adolescent daughters to schools and allow them to study further after they have been convinced by repeated visits from MVF field mobilizers. They gain the courage to take a stand in support of their children as it resonates with what they had always wanted for them.

At the same time there are occasions when it is the girls who gained courage and took the decision to say no to child labour, child marriage and the drudgery of work and to seek an education instead. Such a stand on the part of the girls is often propelled by their participation in the girls’ committees where they experience expressions of peer solidarity. They also get strength when they know that they have persons in the community, among members of gram panchayats, women’s groups and teachers who show concern for them and will support them. They feel empowered when they find that there is a public discussion at bus stops, weddings, and wakes; when they hear conversations about rescuing girls from labour or early marriage. Similarly, girls get the courage to defy existing norms when they see community efforts to trace a girl missing from the neighbourhood, to assess whether she is safe under the protection of her parents or guardians and to help those who are victims of violence.

Ultimately their exercise of agency is based on a ray of hope to escape from forced labour, drudgery and early marriage to freedom and liberty. In turn, it is their innate strength and standing their ground, and not relenting under any pressure, that gives an impetus to the community and members of various forums to go the extra mile in favour of adolescent girls. The girls’ struggle also strengthens the response of public institutions wherein the functionaries of the state are compelled to address urgent and concrete challenges posed by the girls. They can no longer hide behind convenient arguments about structural constraints, tradition, culture or the poverty of the parents but utilise the policies and legal instruments at their disposal to protect children’s rights in a rights-based perspective.

Children’s participation and exercise of agency thus becomes indispensable in bringing about a transformation in their own lives and in building new social norms in the community.

MVF mobilisers and introspection

The role of MVF mobiliser is key to changing social norms. In the case of child labour their stand was strong from the beginning as they themselves came from similar backgrounds. They needed no convincing on the matter. Likewise, they went ahead with mobilising communities for girls’ education. However, when the issue of supporting adolescent girls’ education opened up the debate on patriarchy and gender equality, MVF mobilisers - both male and female - had to contend with their personal practices in the family. The male mobilisers became more and more conscious that there was inequality and were compelled to accept their own limitations and correct them. The female mobilisers too had to assert, and continue to do so, for equality in the family. They had also brought up the issue of gender discrimination in MVF, showing how all pervasive this issue is. This matter had to be addressed and dealt with within the organization and will form the topic of a future blog.

The summer months between April and June are the season for arranging marriages in the State of Telangana. Friends and relatives begin to scout for girls of marriageable age -14 years and above. There are feverish negotiations between the parties for dowry, gift exchanges and scheduling of auspicious dates, and weddings are arranged and celebrated, unmindful of the girl and her aspirations and wish to study.

Changing community norms about child marriage is one of the key strategies of the Ika Chaalu project to ensure that adolescent girls can complete secondary education. Initial actions against child marriage led to tensions and resistance from the parents and families. Adolescent girls participating in the Kishori Balika Sangham (KBS) or Girls’ Committees were fully aware of the consequences of child marriage and that it was against the law. Consequently, they felt empowered to share information with their friends if there was talk in their families of their marriage being arranged. This would provide the cue to project field mobilisers to jump into action to stop the marriage with the involvement of gram panchayats, schoolteachers, women’s groups, and whoever else was seen as an active supporter of girls in the village. If the issue escalated and girls were deemed to be at risk, Childline 1098 was contacted to rescue the girl and keep her in a safe place till the parents were convinced not to go ahead with the marriage. At times, the police registered cases against those who aided and abetted child marriage.

Gradually, determined to study further and dream of higher education and beyond, girls picked up courage and began to exercise agency, even as more and more people in the community came forward to support girls’ education. By the beginning of 2020, all such practices of child marriage were part of history in the Ika Chaalu project area. Parents no longer forced their daughters to get married. Their script changed in a seamless fashion. Questions such as: who will marry our daughter; can we afford the dowry; where will the venue be; who to borrow money from to cover the wedding expenses were erased from memory to be replaced by a new set of questions such as: what is a good high school for my daughter; how far is it from our village; do we admit her in a hostel or seek admission for her in a good residential school; what is a good course for her to pursue after high school. There was no longer any pressure on the girls to get married, nor any debate on ‘why education?’ A remarkable change in norms indeed!

The lockdown due to Covid came as a big blow. With uncertainty about reopening of schools, precarity due to loss of livelihoods and income, a few stray incidents of girls’ eloping or just fears about them being sexually abused, parents of adolescent girls started arranging marriages of their daughters. The weddings took place in stealth. These were the very same parents who were full of pride that their daughters were performing well in their studies and even encouraged their pursuit of higher education.

There was resistance to the arrangement of such marriages by the girls. Members of the Girls’ Committees made phone calls to the field mobilisers and also to Childline to stop marriages. Local institutions such as the Gram Panchayats and Child Rights Protection Forums (CRPF) took a clear stand against child marriage whenever they were alerted, as they had all been sensitized on this issue in the Ika Chaalu project. For example, a field mobiliser in Nutankal received a call from a member of KBS that a girl from Yedavelli was due to be married. She contacted the Tehsildar and the Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) and along with the Anganwadi Worker and CRPF member, the officials counseled the girl and her parents and prevented the marriage.

In another instance in Pedanemila, Lalita – a field mobiliser - received a call about a proposed child marriage, but she could not make it to the venue in time. She rang Childline and persuaded a team of officials to stop the marriage. They visited the girl’s house, but her grandparents denied any plans of marriage. Even the neighbors concealed information and questioned the officials about how they could think that a wedding would be performed during the lockdown. The officials left and the girl was married after four days. This was a huge disappointment for the mobiliser as she had had been instrumental in rescuing this girl earlier from child labour and had succeeded in mainstreaming her to formal school in Class 9. “If only the schools were not closed this girl would still have been studying”, laments Lalita.

At the same time, with the power of the girls’ determination and the alliances that have been built in the community and with local functionaries, many a child marriage has been stopped during the lockdown. Gram panchayats have been asked to make announcements in the village about the laws on child marriage. Priests of all religions have been instructed to verify dates of birth before solemnizing the marriage. Indeed, in one instance, a newly married bridegroom pledged that he would encourage the girl to continue with her education! During the last weeks of May 2021, field mobilisers held a campaign against child marriage in which they met all the members of CRPFs, School Management Committees, Gram Panchayats, as well as priests, caterers, cooks and wedding venue decorators. They were all reminded about the Child Marriage Act and informed that they could be put in jail for aiding and abetting child marriage.

The following is a recent, heartening example of Ika Chaalu field staff mobilizing relevant functionaries to cooperate in stopping a child marriage in the times of the Covid lockdown:

Uma is a bold and gutsy girl who makes friends with boys easily and is fun to be with. She is quite a leader and her presence in the Girls’ Committee meetings contributed hugely to the quality of the discussions held there. She gave confidence to all the girls to open up and speak. Sometime in February 2020, her uncle complained to her parents that her behavior had to be checked as it was rumored that she had “loose morals”. Uma was promptly reprimanded by her parents and she was stopped from attending the Girls’ Committee meetings. Her parents began to control her mobility and put her under watch. In the meantime, the lockdown was announced, and she isolated herself. The field mobiliser – Dhanamma - noticed that Uma changed a lot, she was quiet, cried a lot and would not talk. With counselling and a great deal of probing, Uma revealed that she might not be able to continue with her studies after 10th grade. Dhanamma then met her parents a couple of times and convinced them that Uma was a fine girl, they should be proud of her, and she was good at her studies. She helped Uma to get admission in high school (11th grade) in Suryapet town. Through the lockdown in 2020, Uma went with her mother to work on cotton seed and chilli farms and at the same time attended online classes. It seems all was well till her aunt visited them with a proposal of marriage. Uma resisted fiercely and said that she had nothing against the boy but would like to get married only after completion of her graduation. Given the unpredictability of colleges or schools reopening in the near future, her arguments for pursuing education fell on deaf ears. Dhanamma got to know about the engagement from Uma’s friends in the Girls Committee and found out that the wedding was going to be fixed for the second week of May 2021 and that the family were going to meet the priest to fix an auspicious date and time for the wedding. Dhanamma contacted the Sarpanch, who in turn called the priest and warned him against fixing a date and solemnizing the marriage. When the girls’ parents arrived in the priest’s house, he asked them to wait. He immediately called Dhanamma, who called Childline for help. In an hours’ time all the relevant functionaries arrived in the priest’s house. They warned the parents against printing invitation cards or going ahead with the wedding. The Supervisor of the Anganwadi (employed by the department of Women and Child Welfare and officially in charge of the well-being of adolescent girls in her village) was instructed to visit Uma’s home every other day to see if she is safe and has been told that she will be held accountable should Uma get married.

Could the above series of actions lead to a backlash from the community? Could Uma face sanctions and punishment for exercising agency in defiance of power relations in the family and for exposing her parents to public insult and humiliations? It is our experience that the process of building a social norm is one of resolving conflicts. The success of the project lies in the manner in which the conflicts are resolved. The field staff are trained to follow up with the parents, have a continuous dialogue with them and help them to reconcile to the new reality. Gradually parents come to be convinced that they made the right decision. Others in the community - those who took a stand in favor of the girl and those who opposed it are also contacted. This process eases the tensions and indeed helps in vocalizing the support for girls’ education and their rights. The presence of functionaries and the law enforcing institutions gives legitimacy and a stamp of authority to the entire process of stopping a child marriage. To get them to this stage of commitment is again a process of interface with project staff, the community and the girls themselves. From initial indifference to the issue, the functionaries of the state begin to take pride in the transformation their actions make to the lives of girls. It is in this environment that girls get the courage to act without fear of reprisals, and the agency of the girls reinforces the rest of the community to take a stand.

In times of massive crises, as in the case of the pandemic lockdown, the structural inequities in the system get reinforced. It seems patriarchy is a stubborn and default norm. Yet, it is heartening to see that the efforts of the Ika Chaalu project in building a social norm towards gender equality and girls’ education is not completely lost, nor totally reversed. With girl power and its voice, and the functionaries of the state acting in unison, there is hope.

Challenging and changing social norms has been at the heart of MV Foundation’s (MVF) work since 1991 when it started its programme on child labour and education in rural Andhra Pradesh, India. Child labour was rampant at that time, and school attendance was low. Turning this situation around posed a challenge, given the organization’s objective to universalize education and eradicate child labour in its entirety in its programme areas. It required the conceptualization and development of strategies to tackle harmful societal prac

tices that prevented the realization of these objectives.

The Ika Chaalu project builds on this experience to engage with the social norms that get in the way of realizing universal education rights for all adolescent girls.

The genesis of the social norms approach

From the outset, MVF took an uncompromising position that child labour in all its forms – be it wage work or non-wage work; trafficked or forced labour; hazardous, non-hazardous or worst forms of child labour; work for one’s own family or for an employer - is unacceptable and that all children must enjoy their right to education and protection from labour. As long as there were any children out of school, they would be available on standby to contribute to the labour force. This was equally true for girls who were out of school and who worked at home performing domestic chores. Thus, all children who were out of school were considered to be child labour as MVF saw an inextricable link between the elimination of child labour and children enjoying their right to education. MVF took this as a non-negotiable principle that would guide its work.

This uncompromising stand was at odds with the normative expectations of the society at large i.e., that poor children must work to feed their families and that they would be better off learning traditional skills as the formal education system had neither the quality, nor any relevance to their lives. The education policy of the State was in consonance with this regressive societal norm and prescribed non-formal education for working children so that they could ‘earn and learn’. The schools also gave a clear message that they were not serious about enrolling and teaching poor children, and further, the legal and policy framework gave legitimacy to the existence of child labour by prohibiting only some forms of child labour. The view that child labour was ‘normal’ and ‘inevitable’ was deeply entrenched at all levels of society - rich and poor, elite and subalterns - as well as at the level of the State. Poor parents did exactly what was expected of them: they gave up on their children’s education and put them to work. This dire combination of regressive social norms and enabling policy framework played a hegemonic role in child labour being regarded as normal and in reproducing structures of domination and oppression.

Changing that status quo for children required replacing the existing social norm that condoned child labour with a new norm that all children had rights that had to be protected under all circumstances. The rights-based discourse fits well into MVF’s own principles of universality, equality and non-discrimination. The objective was that no child should be at work and all children should be in formal, full-time school. No distinction was made on the basis of caste, gender or any other form of exclusion or deprivation. This meant that the entire community had to transcend its political, cultural, class, caste and other differences in favour of children’s rights. The local community, civil society and the State were to be equal partners to bring about a change in the lives of children.

The process of changing social norms

MVF’s field experience shows that changing long-held social norms is an arduous and slow, though not impossible, process. In every community there are examples of the poorest of parents supporting their children’s education; there are individuals who support child rights and are outraged by the plight of children; and there are poor boys and girls who have completed school and demonstrated the possibility of education. Then there are the constitutional values of equality and social justice that give strength to claim children’s rights. Above everything else, there is a moral imperative that gives the energy and legitimation to raise the awareness of the community and ask questions such as: “Is it fair and just to have thousands of children in our villages working as child labourers? Should they not all be in schools? What about their rights?”.

Changing social norms is a multi-pronged activity that has to take place at several levels and in different arenas. It is not a sequential process. It requires social mobilisation that is affective, emotionally fuelled and a work of care, love and empathy and which galvanises the support of the community, local institutions and their functionaries. MVF field mobilisers expose practices, attitudes, habits, culture and institutions that reinforce child labour. These issues are not discussed in a vacuum, instead they are brought up through campaigns, public meetings, posters, wall writings, street theatre and other modes that propel individual agency as well as collective action. Concrete instances of the release of children from the labour force and its impact on the child and the family are taken up while engaging with the community and serve as an example to hesitant parents and hardened employers. Gradually, the mindsets of the community begin to change, they internalize the new norm and become partners in the process of eradicating child labour and realizing education for all children. They are prepared to engage with local officials, and thereon with district and state level functionaries, to make them accountable for protecting the rights of children.

Rules of Engagement

MVF’s field practices are bound by certain internally evolved ground rules, such as recognising the indispensability of every person in the process of changing social norms. The most self-serving employer of children, the most stubborn parent, recalcitrant school teacher, corrupt functionary, indifferent politician, insensitive opinion maker, hardened underground Maoist cadre, rent seekers, thugs and local dons are all given equal importance and respect. The challenge is to win them over and change their hearts and minds so that they all become partners in the process of liberating children from labour and enrolling them in school. Nobody is treated as an adversary and everyone is a potential partner. The quarrel is not with the person but with the values they hold, and so the process of discussion and motivation carries on till there is a change in mindsets. For the MVF field mobiliser, the real victory is in getting these same persons to become children’s advocates and their partners in the movement against child labour and for education.

Another rule is that violence is to be shunned at all times. In the early phases of the project, there were several instances when field mobilisers experienced a risk to life, violence, boycott, abuse, insults and humiliation in the process of withdrawing a child from work, or preventing a child marriage. However, dialogue, discussion and engagement with patience are strictly adhered to at all times. The principle of universality requires that the discussion with the community does not stop until the original objective of reaching the last child has been achieved. Non-violence, as well as the process of dialogue and discussion, compels openness, transparency and inclusion. Non-violence is seen not only a moral force but also the only method to democratise societies.

The organization believes that the attitudes of individuals and functionaries of the State, and the roles of local institutions, are not static. Nor does it accept the stereotypical view that these functionaries have a vested interest in maintaining their own power and authority and would never work for the common good. It is in constantly engaging with local institutions as public institutions providing services, and with elected local functionaries as publicrepresentatives, and not as individuals belonging to a particular caste or community, that the possibility of changing institutional responses opens up. Engaging with these individuals is seen as an issue of governance that has to be corrected.

Locally relevant strategies

MVF’s strategies for changing social norms in the field are not guided by a toolkit or a manual, nor is there any blueprint for action. While the non-negotiable principle that no child should be at work and all children should be in school gives a clear focus and objective to field practices, the strategies for achieving this are not rigid or static. They are not transplanted from outside, nor are they pre-planned or anticipated at the verticals of the organisation, but develop organically and respond to needs as they arise and are locally designed and acceptable. They evolve on the basis of a community or group decision and address the specific constraints of the local environment. The experience and intuition of the field mobilisers helps to guide this process and discussions continue till the final goal of getting a child out of labour and into school and expanding the base of child defenders is reached.

Children’s agency

When children begin to exercise agency and demand their rights, parents are forced to give in to their attempts to exercise control over their lives. Children also use other means of negotiation like refusing to eat or speak till the parents relent and allow them to attend school or avoid early marriage. Similarly, the functionaries of public institutions are compelled to address the urgent and practical challenges posed by children’s determination to secure their rights. They can no longer hide behind arguments about the poverty of the parents, tradition and culture and structural constraints. Children’s acts of defiance against existing social norms compels the officials to utilise the policy mandates and legal instruments at their disposal and respond to children’s demands that their right to protection from labour and education should be secured. There are, however, limits to what local functionaries can do. Children’s voice and agency also confronts and lays bare the overall norms that shape governmental policies. These seemingly micro and local acts expose the larger structures of the economy, the politics of development and the priorities of the State.

Thus, the simple act of saying ‘no’ to one’s past and charting a new path disturbs the equilibrium, and has implications for radicalizing society. It can lead to fashioning a new set of traditions, cultures, values and norms based on respect for dignity, equity and justice for children. Exercising agency leads to shaping new destinies for the child, and hopefully galvanises the State and local society to embrace its responsibilities towards all children and their rights.

Measurement and data collection

Aspirations must lead to action, and action to outcomes. Any change in social norms regarding child labour and education should reflect in increased school attendance, reductions in child labour and an end to child marriages in the community. This is indeed the case in MVF’s programme areas where over a million children have been withdrawn from labour and enrolled into full-time, formal schools; 1500 villages are child labour free and all children are in school. In addition, 25,000 adolescent girls have been retained in school and 8000 child marriages have been prevented or pre-empted.

In addition, field mobilisers gather data on a regular basis on each child in the programme area. Specifically, information is gathered on their educational status and work profile, and specific information on members of their household is also recorded . This household level information is supplemented by comprehensive data collected from schools to assess attendance, absenteeism, and the outcome of annual exams. These two data bases allow the mobilisers to identify problems in the family, at school, or elsewhere and engage in a discussion with the relevant stakeholders and seek collective remedial action. The local data generated go well beyond baseline and endline surveys for gauging impact. They are used operationally on a continuous basis, contributing to the effectiveness of local initiatives and interventions, as well as a way of ensuring the widespread acceptance and ownership of the new norm.

Sustainability of new norms

The sustainability of new norms is judged by the ability of the community and its institutions to take independent actions with regard to monitoring and ensuring the rights of all children to education and protection from labour. Widespread acceptance of the new norm means that the organization can reduce its role and presence over a period of time. Once the new norm takes hold, the old framework rapidly begins to lose credibility and it is rare for the community to slide back to the previous situation. In the villages where all children have been successfully enrolled in formal school, the discussion has gradually shifted from whether children should be at work or in school, to the quality of education, teachers and school infrastructure and to facilitating access to high school so that children can continue their education beyond the village school. A similar change is discernible in the Ika Chaalu project areas where parents are no longer focused on arranging marriages for their adolescent daughters and are instead more concerned about how and where they can complete their secondary education.

Predictably, major upheavals and crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, with the extended lockdown, the closure of schools and residential hostels, and the loss of family income and livelihoods have put an enormous strain on families, potentially leading to a reversal in social norms. However, reports from the field offer some reassurance and confirm that show that the powerful alliance that was built between children, their families, the community, elected local representatives and functionaries of the State has gone a long way towards ensuring children’s rights even in these difficult circumstances.

Field mobilisers: key links in the chain

The field mobilisers are not recruited by advertisement, they emerge and develop organically from within and are deeply embedded in the culture, society and communities in which they work. They are immersed in the theory and practice of MVF, have internalised the organizational philosophy and run all aspects of the programme at the grassroots level. Their personal commitment, abilities, discipline and perseverance makes them into powerful strategists and tacticians, energizers and organisers. They can work independently and are equally skilled at planning, monitoring, implementation and data collection, as well as at campaigns, interacting with parents, teachers, police or local officials. These skills cannot be short-circuited at will – human, social and institutional capital takes time to construct and consolidate. They are the true carriers of the strategy for changing social norms and claiming children’s rights.

There are of course nuances in the processes of changing social norms in the context of gender equality and girls' educatio. The above process of norm change described has been adapted for the Ika Chaalu project to embrace the specificities of the gender issues confronting adolescent girls.