By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
Although she has been described as “reserved” and “shy,” Professor Shantha Sinha is bold and outspoken when it comes to issues of social justice – especially, if those issues are close to her heart. And no issue is of greater importance to her than protecting the rights of children. As a fearless activist, Professor Sinha is known worldwide for her work in fighting against child labor. In fact, she has spent the better part of over thirty years making enormous contributions to ending forced child labor and fighting for children’s rights.
In 1981, she established the Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF), a non-government organization devoted to ending child labor and promoting universal education. Despite an initial shortage of funds and government support, she and over 80,000 volunteer members are committed to bringing her vision to fruition. Sinha’s energy and willingness to fight has contributed to a huge reduction of child labor in nearly 500 villages in Andhra Pradesh, India.
To help raise awareness about the issue of child labor, Infinite Fire is proud to shine a light on Shantha Sinha, an amazing woman who is tireless in her efforts to rescue children from abuse and safeguard the right of every child to be well-educated, free, and happy.
Shantha Sinha was born on January 7th, 1950 in Nellore, a city in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a primarily agricultural region with a diverse community of difference cultural and caste groups. Sinha was one of seven children, and the only girl among her siblings. Although her family were Brahmins (considered to be the upper cast of society), the elders in the family made sure that the children did not grow up feeling entitled to special treatment. In fact, the family values were very modern and liberal overall, with an emphasis placed on helping others..
Sinha attended Osmania University in 1970, where she earned a master’s degree in Political Science. Six years later, she completed her education with a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Shortly afterwards, she began her career as a Professor and academician at the Hyderabad Central University, where she came to be a respected faculty member of the Department of Political Science.
Originally, Sinha focused her efforts underpaid adult laborers who were working in different sectors of Andhra Pradesh. Her goal was to help unionize them, so they could improve their salaries and working conditions. But while studying local workers, she quickly realized that as much as 40% of bonded laborers (those bound by labor due to being in financial debt and unable to pay) were children.
Many of the adults who were in debt were willing to “sell” their children into labor, creating conditions that were little more than indentured slavery. And at the time, there were no agencies representing the welfare and wellbeing of children. It wasn’t long before Sinha decided to undertake the task of representing child laborers herself and fighting for their rights to be free from exploitation. At this point, her mission had begun. And Sinha knew she would not rest until this system of abuse and manipulation had been eradicated, She envisioned a future where all children were had access to a quality education and enjoyed a childhood free from slave labor.
EDUCATION, NOT SLAVERY
One of Sinha’s first actions in her crusade as anti-child labor was to establish in 1981 a non-profit organization, the Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF), strictly devoted to ending child labor and fighting for children’s rights. As of 2017, MVF has some 86,000 volunteers, all devoted to the cause. Although the foundation originally began as a research institution on social transformation, it has since developed into something much more.
Today, it is actively involved in challenging societal norms and changing things for the better, with a focus on promoting guaranteed, universal education for all children as a means to abolish child labor. Over the years, the organization has developed aggressive programs to help children withdraw from work and re-enter schools and to make sure they stay there until their education is completed. The programs stay with the children until they are young adults entering the work force of their own free will, and following careers of their own choice.
The organization is guided by five core principles:
- All children should attend formal, full-time day schools.
- Any child out of school is, by definition, a laborer
- All work is hazardous to the overall growth and development of a child
- There should be a total ban on child labor
- Any justification for perpetuating child labor must be condemned.
With these basic ideals lighting the way, Sinha and her volunteers have paved the way for widespread social reform. And by all accounts, MVF has been enormously successful. To date, over 1 MILLION children have been freed from indentured labor and enrolled in school. In addition, 168 villages are now child labor free. There are even special camps set up so that children who have missed out on education opportunities have time to catch up, depending on their age and how much education has been missed.
Furthermore, more than 4,000 adult bonded laborers have also been released from bondage. In addition, MVF’s success rate has also encouraged the government to become involved and cooperate with Sinha. And legislators throughout India are now applying Sinha’s methods nationwide. Because of Sinha, a truly remarkable transformation has taken place throughout the region, for both children and adults, one that focuses on education, reform and justice.
STANDING BEFORE THE U.N.
In 1989, the Convention of the Rights of Children (CRC) was held at the United Nations, with nearly 200 countries attending. The CRC is an international convention held by the United Nations to address the issue of furthering children’s rights, It has outlined several essential rights that it hopes to attain for all children throughout the world. Sinha not only attended this meeting, but was one of the key speakers at the gathering.
“A lot of people say that the practicality of attaining the rights in the CRC is too overwhelming,” said Sinha. “But from a child’s point of view, it is impractical to be suffering. As soon as you start talking of it being overwhelming, you are making excuses.”
Many find Sinha a moving and convincing voice to be reckoned with. When she speaks, there is a confidence in her eyes and hardly anyone dares to oppose her, because the information that she presents is both compelling and practical. With her impressive charisma, Sinha has a way of energizing people and motivating them to give her their very best.
“In a true democracy,” Sinha later said in her speech, “every child must be regarded as indispensable and the government must be held accountable for the deaths of children and mothers. Continuous failure on this account has to be perceived as a threat to the nation’s progress. It is in the process of responding to the most vulnerable, the pregnant women, poor mothers and infants in their weakest moments that democracy is tested.”
For her years of devotion and hard work improving the lives of others, especially children, Sinha was awarded the civilian honor of Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1998. Less than one year later, she was also given the Albert Shanker International Award (1999) from Education International, a global federation of teachers’ trade unions consisting of 401 organizations in 172 countries and territories that represents over 30 million education personnel from pre-school through university. With a worldwide reputation, Sinha was also granted the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2003, an annual honor established to promote former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay’s example of “integrity in governance, courageous service to the people, and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society.”
Due to her influence and astounding success, Indian parliament passed the Commission for Protection of Child Rights Act in December of 2005, which brought about the creation of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), officially established in March 2007. Professor Sinha, to no one’s surprise, was chosen to act as its first chairperson, and served for two consecutive 3-year terms.
Over the years, Sinha continued to either establish or become actively involved with other organizations for social justice, working closely with teachers, nongovernmental organizations, women’s groups, and various youth associations. In recent years Sinha has given special attention to young girls who are caught up in indentured labor. When one of MVF’s volunteers noticed a sudden drop in the number of scheduled girls attending school, he sought them out, but could not find them at home either.
He quickly discovered that a new kind of commercial farming had entered the area, with companies targeting young girls for cheap labor. Their work was not only labor-intensive, but also required workers to handle toxic pesticides. These companies enticed poverty-stricken parents by offering them large loan advances and other lures for access to their children. They told the parents that only pre-pubescent girls could do the work. Out of desperation, many parents “loaned out” their young daughters. However, as soon as MVF found out about this new phenomenon, they quickly moved into action. Sinha and her staff organized a concerted campaign against this type of farming, and has had great success in stopping the targeting of young children.
As MVF continues to grow and gain resources, Sinha’s efforts to end child labor have begun to extend beyond her home country of India. In recent years, she has expanded her program and activities to include countries in Europe and Asia, bringing many nations into the struggle to eradicate the injustices of child labor.
Because of Shatha Sinha, countless children today are being spared long hours of grueling labor and are enjoying the benefits of a proper education, as well as free time to play, learn, and grow. Many of them, having completed their schooling, have gone on to become teachers themselves, as well as nurses, doctors, and engineers. In this sense, her efforts help to improve the entire society. This is happening all throughout India, because of one woman who saw an injustice and decided to stand up and do something about it.
“When we began working, the common question that had to be answered was why children are in work. Now, nobody asks that question in Andhra Pradesh, especially in the education department and among NGOs working on child rights. The question now is how to get them into schools. This is a major difference.”
The story of Shatha Sinha is a powerful one. And it is one that reminds us of the impact that one person can have in bringing people together to improve the world.