‘Children of Bal Ashram’: From child laborer to activist

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SUBOG hosted the first annual film festival in the Student Union Monday night. The top three films won movie SUBOG vouchers and Fandango gift cards (Nicholas Hampton/The Daily Campus)

Documentarian Len Morris came to UConn on Thursday to provide the fourth public viewing of his unreleased documentary “Children of Bal Ashram” about Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi and his wife Sumedha who run Bal Ashram, a school they created for rescued children of child labor. Satyarthi rescued 87,000 children from child labor and brought many of them to his school through his creation of a child’s rights movement in India. 

This is Morris’ fourth documentary on child labor. He said filming these four documentaries was one of the scariest things he has done in his life, since many of the places he filmed didn’t allow cameras. There were times when his vehicle was hijacked, he’s had to run for his life and a gun was held to his head, but he was determined to finish his documentaries to show the world just how angry he is about child labor. His films have covered child labor, child homelessness, child poverty and now his current one is on rescued children of child labor. Morris said that filming in Bal Ashram stopped being just about distantly filming what was going on and became a more personal matter as he got to know the children and their stories. 

There are approximately 60 million child laborers in India. They are used as a cheap source of labor that can be exploited to work long hours in poor conditions. They work jobs like creating gravel, weaving tapestries and manufacturing bangle jewelry, all of which can cause serious injuries and sickness. The children of Bal Ashram all come from a variety of backgrounds of social persecution and abuse, such as child labor and child marriage. 

When Bal Ashram was initially created, there was no money. It thrived only on the determination of Satyarthi and Sumedha to educate rescued children. Today, it has flourished into a place of rehabilitation where children can safely play, learn and retreat. It is full of lush gardens, almost like a park, with places for the kids to meditate, play and learn. The children sleep, study and play together, which allows them to befriend each other and grow up almost as a family.  

During one point of the documentary, three new teenagers arrived at Bal Ashram. First they were asked if they had eaten yet, and then the other children milling around were asked if they wanted to befriend them. Immediately, all the kids in the yard surrounded the new arrivals and gave them a huge group hug. From there it is made clear that everything will be done to help prevent them from feeling homesick and instead make them feel loved and cared for. 

Sumedha knows every child in Bal Ashram personally, including their backgrounds and birthdays. She tries her best to create an atmosphere of love and support for the children, even celebrating, and sometimes having to create, each of their birthdays, which for many of the children is the first time someone has ever done so. She considers herself a proud mother of these children, even bragging that the children of Bal Ashram tend to be the top 8-10 in their class. And many of the children see her as their mother; one even allowed her to choose his bride after he found out he couldn’t marry the girl he loved. Of course, the girl she set him up with was the very same girl he loved, and Sumedha and Satyarthi had set it up to be a big surprise for the groom. 

The documentary touched on how girls tend to be discounted more than boys in Indian society. Many families refuse to send their daughters to school, believing they should be taking care of their younger siblings and doing housework instead. Even when they’re allowed to attend, girls sometimes don’t want to go to school because utilities like bathrooms aren’t often supplied for them there. Hearing this, Sumedha helped to encourage and get girls to go to school by asking the boys to give up a bathroom for them and sending a van to bring them from their homes to attend classes at Bal Ashram. Among these girls, there are several child brides and children who have never gone to school before. Boys and girls are taught skills in the schools that will be marketable in the local village such as sewing, working as electricians and Hindi. They also teach them morals such as “Hawan,” or doing a good deed. 

“I definitely know more about gender and child labor in India,” Rui Guo, an eighth-semester communications major, said. “And also at the plantation they tried to rescue the children from the child labor marketing.” 

When a child is brought to Bal Ashram, they are brought to talk to onsite therapists and their parents are called. The therapists also provide parental counseling. The documentary depicted a boy who was reunited with his parents for the first time in two years. The parents had sold him due to their immense poverty, but they hadn’t know what he would be forced to do. They were shocked to hear he had been working 14 hours a day making jewelry. Satyarthi turned to the father and told him that poverty should not mean children should be enslaved, and both parents nodded, clearly horrified.  

Many of the children of Bal Ashram grow up to be child labor activists. They partake in marches and protests, rescue other children and even create schools of their own. Mainly, though, they speak up for other children, even going to the homes of parents trying to marry off their young daughters and informing them that they will call for their arrest if they go through with the wedding. The documentary even depicts Sumedha and her crowd of child labor activists surrounding and pressuring a leader in a village to promise there would no longer be child marriage in his village. They also speak out against toxic social norms such as how women should be doing housework and don’t need educations.  

Since Bal Ashram was created, the number of child laborers in India has been cut in half and hundreds of programs have been created to help educate and care for poor children. In addition to this, new laws have been created and enforced in India to eliminate child marriage and labor. 

Currently, a 75-student classroom with 10 restrooms is being constructed for the girls who attend school at Bal Ashram. Once this is completed, many of the children will have a chance to view this documentary about them there, according to Morris. 

“My opinion about this movie: It’s definitely very inspiring, especially when you think of children’s issues and gender inequality issues in India,” Yuan Yuan Sao, a sixth-semester journalism and communications major, said. “And I am glad to see the organization — I think what they did is very encouraging and very helpful for making the issue get better and making India be a better country.” 

At the close of his documentary, Morris asked his audience to help end child labor not only in India, but even here in the United States. He suggested only buying organic, local foods, looking into the companies you shop from and joining groups on campus that protest child labor. As expressed by the film, children have the rights to love, education and autonomy over their bodies. 


Rebecca Maher is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.maher@uconn.edu.

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