- Anoyara Khatun was sent to work at the age of 10 to support her family
- After being rescued, she started working towards child protection
- Her ground-level work catapulted her to represent India at the UN twice
New Delhi: By the tender age of 19, Anoyara Khatun has been to the United Nations twice – the voice of young girls from poor families in an obscure corner of India. It was an incredible journey – one that pitched her from a tiny village in Bengal to New York.
Hearing her, it is hard to believe Anoyara is a teen. The trappings are conspicuously missing – cellphone, pretty clothes, talk of friends, movies or career. Only once did she betray her true age. Asked what she bought for herself in New York, she shyly said, “mascara and lipstick”.
But then, Anoyara had cause to grow up too soon.
One of five children from a farming family in Bengal’s Sandeshkhali, she had been sent to work at the age of 10 to support her family. It is not a time she is keen to talk about – but the effect is visible.
The six months she spent before being rescued, turned the shy, demure girl into a vocal powerhouse, passionate about the right of girls to study, have a childhood, make their own decisions and be what they want to be.
Over the next nine years, she along with 80 children groups have rescued over 200 children who were being sent to work as domestic helps. Many others were saved from child marriages and child labour.
It was this ground-level work that catapulted her to the United Nations for the first time in 2015. This year she was called back to the UN General Assembly along with a select few because of the huge initiative they had taken after last year’s conference.
It was at the UN, Anoyara said, that she understood the importance of how much can be achieved “if we all work together”.
From afar, she saw Nadia Murad, Yazidi human rights activist who has been appointed UN Goodwill Ambassador, the first day she walked into the UN. “She lost everybody and still she managed to put up such a fight and do so much. It is an inspiration for all of us.” As for her other icon, Malala Yousafzai, she said, “I never saw Malala, but I met her father.”
The UN exposure has not changed the pattern of her days – most of which is spent on the cause dear to her heart, neglected children from the poorest of the poor families of rural Bengal.
Almost every day, she says, it is her “students” who come to wake her at 4 am. The next few hours are spent teaching – the children cannot afford paid tuition. Then it is time for college, nearly 2 hours away, where she is a second year student of Bachelor of Arts. On her way home, she drops into the office of Dhagagia Social Welfare Society , where they discuss the week-end projects, mostly sensitization programmes at neighbouring villages or troubleshooting for girls – underage brides, trafficked children, acid attack victims.
She is proud that sending out children to work has almost been eliminated in her immediate neighbourhood – around 80 villages of Sandeshkhali, Sabdeshkhali and Minakhan blocks.
In this respect, she also mentions the positive role of the government programmes – Indira Awas Yojana, NREGA and Right to Education – which by allowing adults to have an income and a roof over their head, takes the pressure off children and helps underscore the importance of education for them.
Asked what her name means, Anoyara said she was not certain, but it was on the lines of “lots of light”. Knowingly or not, that is what she is trying to spread on a lot of lives.