Recasting Social Norms to Eliminate Child Labour and Universalize Education

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.


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