Having gone through a very difficult situation himself when he was younger, being a victim of child slavery, Om has dedicated his life to helping his fellow youths escape the hard life of being a child labourer. He actively promotes and fights for the right of all children to have education, as he believes that it is through education that children can grow up heading to the right direction.
As a start, Om pushed for the registration of all children by promoting their eligibility of having birth certificates. Through his persistent work in persuading the government in the registration of every child in India, birth certificates were given to almost all children in the country.
Om also actively works against child labor. Throughout his career as an activist, Om has successfully liberated numerous children from slavery by telling them his own stories and how he got out by realizing that he had rights. He also helps in establishing safe havens for children through the Bal Mitra Grams projects, which construct child friendly villages where children are safe from child labor.
Om Prakash Gurjar’s Early BioOm Prakash Gurjar was born in July 1992 in Rajasthan, India to poor parents that became labourers for a local landlord. In the place where Om was born, the concept of children’s rights was non-existent; in fact, even human rights were paid little attention to, as most of the villagers, except for the wealthy and powerful, didn’t have any notion of such. Most families in Rajasthan lived through sheer hard work coupled with duty and determination. Poverty was rampant, and people were kept bound through traditions and belief systems that obviously displayed discrimination between castes and financial classes. One example of these traditions is the practice of grandmothers in beating a thali (a metal plate) whenever a male child is born, or breaking an earthen pitcher at the entrance of their houses whenever a female child is born or if someone had just died in the family (the reason for doing so is to tell to the village that instead of a boy, a girl has been born).
There was so much discrimination, especially on the women of society, that if for example a family that had children comprised of boys and girls was able to save some money, they would prefer to send the boy to school rather than the girl. In a speech made by Om many years later, he recalled how his childhood society was like:
“When boys are born, grandmothers stand at the threshold of the home and joyously beat a thali, metal plate, to announce the birth of a male child. In contrast, whenever a girl is born, the women of the family break an earthen pitcher at the entrance of the house. This act is also performed when there is a death in the family, and signifies to neighbors and village folk sadness that the child has been born a girl. The difference between a boy and a girl, and their respective value in home and by society, is clearly marked from the beginning.”
But probably the worst thing that existed in Rajasthan during the time was the existence of child labour, a system that has prevailed for thousands of years in India. The wealthy or the upper class members of society owned a lot of slaves that they exploited for their own interests – even the young ones. Back then, landlords ruled the common folk, and used their power and resources to keep what they saw as ‘lesser’ beings (referring to the poorer community) at arms-length to control them.
This was the kind of life that Om had to endure in his early years. Both his grandfather and his father once borrowed some money from their landlord, which resulted in them and their families being obliged to serve as bonded labourers to the landlord. It was a very difficult situation, as the landlords of Rajasthan did not so much care for their workers – they only gave the workers what they needed to at least survive to work for another day.
For the first four years of his life, Om was spared from this tremendous life as he was too young to do any kind of labor. During this time, his parents did whatever they could to shower Om with the love and care that they could give, knowing full well what kind of life was ahead for the young boy.
A Child Labourer at FiveWhen Om was only five years old, long before he could understand what was going on, or why his parents were compelled to work as unpaid labourers, people from the landlord (whom his father owed a debt to) took him from his parents to work as a slave in the landlord’s farm.
For the next three years, Om toiled in the back-breaking work that he and a million other children in India suffered from simply because children’s rights did not exist. Unlike the children who were fortunate enough to escape labour because their parents had enough money to send them to school, Om was denied the right to be educated; instead, he spent a lot of time working in the fields, herding cattle and planting crops, and sometimes even working with very hazardous pesticides. He was given only two meals a day, was often beaten and never paid for his labor.
Through it all, Om never voiced any concern about what he was doing, but deep inside was wondering why he did not have the same life as some other children: “I worked with animals and crops, and wondered why I did not go to school like other children.”
From Child Labourer to Children’s HeroAfter being liberated from forced labor, Om went to the Bal Ashram, a rehabilitation home for children in Rajasthan that was established to educate and train those children that were freed from slavery. There, he learned more about the importance of education, and that children like him had rights. He said in his speech to the United Nations Children’s Fund:
“From the moment I arrived at Bal Ashram, I understood what child rights are. For the first time I observed and realized that here was a place where children’s voices are heard, their opinions considered, and decisions made after taking their opinion into account. There was a Panchayat (assembly) of child members who represented the students’ interests and concerns in meetings with the managers and instructors.”
Through the constant efforts of the teachers that worked in Bal Ashram, as well as through the stories of the educated children who voluntarily gave their time to work with the organization, Om came to realize that there were laws that were set up to protect children—not just in India, but all throughout the world.
These laws were responsible for establishing children’s rights, and that through movements such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other children rights organizations, these laws were being put to effect.
Om’s experience in Bal Ashram lit a fire in him that would later on become a huge force for change. In just a few months after being released from slavery, Om became very eager to talk about children’s rights wherever he went.
He also longed for education, as he saw the significance of education in a person’s life; children who were educated were less likely to end up being poor, as they would have the skill set that would land them good jobs that would in turn, give them sustainable pay.
In search for a place to study, Om visited the local public school in their area to apply for education. When he learned that the school charged a fee of one hundred rupees from the students, Om raised the issue to the local magistrate, knowing full well that public schools should not charge anything from their students. After diligently following up on this issue, the magistrate raised a petition to the Jaipur Court, which resulted in the school being obligated to return whatever amount the parents paid for the education of their children.
From this time on, Om’s efforts in making sure that free education was given to the children in Rajasthan became very famous, so much so that the Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission would often cite his case as a basis whenever they encountered public schools who were charging fees from their students.
Aside from actively promoting free education, Om also diligently worked to free other children from slave labor. Since his liberation, Om has actively participated in the efforts of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan in saving other children from the harsh life of slavery and giving them education for a brighter future.
Om spoke in several of these activities, and told of the difficult life that he had to endure, as well as the brighter future that lay ahead of the children that were being rescued. It was also through these activities that Om learned of how little the government of India was doing to promote the rights of the children.
In one interview made with him many years later, he recalled a particular event when he helped in liberating other slave children:
“Recently, when I was involved in the action of liberating bonded child laborers from zari, or gold thread factories together with the activists of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, I observed how callous the conduct of government officials was with the liberated children. When I asked them to follow the rules in the Convention, they appeared ignorant that such rules exist.”
Over 500 Children Demand Birth RegistrationHe realized that without the help of the government, the organization Om was working with was not going to be able to be of much help to the still numerous child slaves scattered throughout the country. Because of this, Om and Bachpan Bachao Andolan started promoting children’s rights to the local governments, encouraging them to do something about the situation.
In one instance, Om rallied a group of children from the Alwar and Dausa districts to claim their rights through campaigning birth registration for them. Om encouraged over five hundred children to get formally registered with the government, as it secured their status and rights both then and the future. He said:
“In India, to even have a chance of realizing child rights you must first be recognized by the law. This means that a child’s own identity is the most significant factor in the cause of child rights.”
What’s Next After Winning the International Children’s Peace PrizeIn 2006, at age fourteen, Om won the International Children’s Peace Prize. He was awarded with $100,000 cash prize that he donated for the usage of furthering children’s rights through the construction of numerous ‘child friendly villages’ in India—villages where children would be safe from child labor.
Upon his return to India, Om was invited to meet with the President of India and several of his cabinet ministers, so they could discuss more effective measures that can be taken to prevent child labour in the country. Not long after that, Om was visited personally by Gordon Brown, the current Prime Minister of Great Britain, where he promised to help for the education of the poorest children in India.