When she was four, all Razia Sultan would do was stitch together little pieces of hide to make footballs. She never got to play with those footballs, leave alone study or do anything that a four-year-old would do.
But things have changed now and how. Today, the teenager is an icon of empowerment and courage. As the sarpanch of the baal panchayat of her village, not only did she break the shackles of child labour, but she helped 48 others like her in doing so too. Razia lives in Nanglakhumba village on the outskirts of Meerut in western UP.
And her efforts have been acknowledged by none other than the United Nations (UN). She will be felicitated as the United Nations' Special Envoy for Global Education's Youth Courage Award for Education on Friday. July 12 is being heralded as Malala Day to highlight the leading role that youth can play in enabling all children to get education. Sultan's name will be taken in the same vein as Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai, who had been shot at by the Taliban for airing her opinions against the agency's ban on girls attending schools in Swat Valley.
Sultan's efforts may have helped the children in the neighbouring village also but she recognises that problems have never really ceased to exist. Once these children were enrolled in schools, there were issues related to their infrastructure.
"There were no toilets, no handpump, no proper rooms or libraries in the schools. The mid-day meals were of poor quality. When I got elected as the head of the 10-member panchayat, we approached the village panchayat to fix these problems. Though initially they did not pay attention, we persisted and today 22 such schools have been revamped," she said.
While administrative hurdles seemed surmountable enough, the biggest challenge, she said, came in the form of resistance to school enrollment by parents.
"The parents were not very enthusiastic about withdrawing the children from the labour force and sending them to school. And convincing parents of girls to send them to school was even more difficult. But we persisted. We kept telling them that their children will never earn as much as much as they ought to if they lacked basic education. Finally, many of them relented," she added.
She herself took nearly two years to completely break away from child labour and throw herself into education and social welfare. She credits her freedom to a movement by the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan to save children like her from child labour.
In Delhi right now, we ask her what lies ahead for her on this path. She says she will continue with her fight against child labour and ensure basic education for all children.