The Barefoot Researchers

In 36 villages, in Manda, Mahadevpur and Tanore there are more than 500 young girls and boys who are working to change their lives and the lives of the 'lesser children of god'. These young people, from some of the poorest families - all under 25 - are quietly coming together, re-constructing their lives and their villages, and (re) searching ways to collectively solve problems to improve their lot. This is an amazing story of power of the poor, youthful energy and collective action. Here, everyone is equal, in poverty, in religion, in citizenship. These young leaders are 'reweaving' their village society, torn by poverty and abuse. They call themselves Gono Gobeshok and I call them The Barefoot Researchers. They call themselves Human Rights Activists. I call them the leaders of the new generation, the new social vanguard leading the fight against poverty, breaking the traditional leadership monopoly.

In groups of ten, they meet weekly and discuss their problems, the cause of their poverty and how they can break out of this vicious cycle. They discover themselves and the powers of collective reflection and action. Every Gono Gobeshok has a story to tell and there are more than 500 stories about how an impoverished peasant youth becomes a social thinker and a social actor. This short narration can merely give a glimpse of the wide range of changes they are bringing into their lives and into their villages.

Jarina Tudu and Rupali Pahan- the adivasi teenagers and Jostna Khatun and Dilruba Khanam- marginal farmer girls-have one thing in common. They are girls, poor and school drop outs. Aminul Islam and Imran Dewan, teenagers coming from very poor families were primary school drop outs who worked as labourers in someone else's farm to make a living. Some years ago their lives began to change. They have gone back to school, married without dowry and built cooperatives of the poor to form capital to fight poverty locally. In Rasulpur, Bohroil, Haji Gobindopur, Kirtoli to name a few villages, there is a vibrant youth movement against poverty.

Aminul comes from a very poor family of 9. After class 8 he had to give up his studies to earn. He worked as a labourer. One day, while working he noticed a group of girls and boys were sitting together discussing their problems and problems of the village and what they could do to solve these. Aminul was surprised. These were young people much like himself. He was even more surprised to hear that they were actually trying to solve these problems themselves! He did not think that was possible. Listening to them he noted they called themselves Gono Gobeshok, the barefoot researchers, and they sit every week to reflect on their problems and find solutions. He found this intriguing and began to attend the discussions and after the third session he wanted to be a part of the group. He found all the girls and boys were going to school and they encouraged him to return to school as well. Unsure and hesitant, he finally got his parents to let him study. He has now completed his SSC. But the story does not end here. Aminul now is part of a village literacy movement to bring all children of his village to school. Together with his Gono Gobeshok friends, he is a volunteer teacher running free schools for marginal children who do not have access to schools. Thanks to the village youths, Bohroil has no primary school drop outs! The adivasi children are also being taught in their language. Jharna Tudu with her Gono Gobeshok friends, have formed a santal cultural group to preserve their culture. Her non-santal friends are collecting adivasi artifacts to preserve their heritage. After all, this heritage belongs to us all!

A total number of 54 schools are presently run by village youth today, of which 13 are for adults. These young people have been sustaining free schools for several years with the dream of making their village 100% primary school going.

Jostna from Haji Gobindopur and Rupali from Kochua, in their teams, have gone from house to house to identify people who could not sign their names and taught them to do so. Their villages have irradicated illiteracy and become 'tipshoi mukto gram'. There are 36 such villages. Shahanara at 17 became a Gono Gobeshok leading the Telopara youth movement. Within three years, she with her team has brought 80% of the poor population of Telopara into cooperatives. The integration of the diverse cultural and religious groups in Telopara is admirable. There are regular bridge building sessions between 'the minority and majority'.

The movement against child marriage and dowry has led to the Barefoot Researchers to ban both practices from their lives and their groups. As a result the Gono Gobeshok will neither marry early nor take or give dowry. Other young people have begun to follow suite. In the last three years, 18 young men married without dowry in Telopara alone. This is not to say that the evils of dowry have been wiped away. It has only begun to be challenged. These young people have joined with village elders and Union Parishad and have set up 22 Resistance Committees against violence against women and children in 22 villages. Through this youth movement, child marriage in these 36 villages decreased noticeably. In 2008, 77% of total marriages were (girl) child marriages. It came down to 21.5% in 2010. In 2008 the giving and taking of dowry was reduced by 20%. By 2010, this was further reduced by 52 %.

Rashid Kisku, Imran Dewan and Elizabeth Hasda, all have a story to tell. Kisku was a poor landless adivasi farmer who joined Gono Gobeshok Dal and worked together to form cooperatives. Collective savings led to an individual enterprise and he now leases land to grow organic farm products such as tomato and vegetables and earns enough to maintain a happy little family. They all, it turn, organise the poor community in the village.

So far the Gono Gobeshok have organised 90% of poor into 89 cooperatives to eradicate poverty. Started with nothing, they now have saved about Taka 1 million in three years. Without micro credit, without bank loan, 'they have built on what they had. They save, invest and earn. They undertake small businesses. Here, no one goes to money lenders. More than 3,000 marginal farmers and 500 marginal youths have begun to form capital.

The Cooperative movement of the poor, a result of the youth movement, has resulted in innovative ways of addressing food insecurity. There were cooperatives of the poor in every village. In one village we found the extreme poor collecting and saving rice. They developed an informal system of 'rice credit' which they provide to poor families who go hungry during 'monga' or periodic joblessness. This rice is returned with a marginal interest (4kg for every 40kg) after three months. These vulnerable people have found a collective way to increase food security for themselves through a system of rice banking. Eight Adivasi Cooperatives formed such 'rice banks'. Presently they have about 1,000 kg of rice. Vulnerable women comprise 73% of the cooperatives. The poor found their own solution to food insecurity.

This peasant youth movement has brought change in sanitation practice; in bringing all children into the fold of primary education; in eradicating illiteracy and finger printing; organising the poor into cooperatives and investment institutions. Through this sanitation movement average coverage increased from 46.42% in 2008 to 66.93% in 2011 in these villages (which was higher than the national rural average of 41.84%). The list is endless. They are resisting drug use and fighting alcohol producers. They are rebuilding broken roads. They are reaching out to one another when in need. These villages are like MDG villages, carrying the MDG forward at the micro-level.

It is an inspirational story of how young peasant adivasi and non-adivasi girls and boys are together defending their rights. They fight for the land rights of their adivasi friends. In Ekannopur of Badhair Union, they reinstated their displaced adivasi friends with the help of Union Parishad and the law. Today, the youth movement that led to the cooperatives of the poor, by the poor, has now resulted into the coming together and formation of an association of 600 landless farmers comprising both adivasi and non adivasi landless farmers. It is a fast growing registered cooperative whose objective is the financial empowerment and the rehabilitation of landless farmers.

Even as I write, I feel the fresh wind of change blowing gently over us. I can hear the bustle in the rice fields and smell the fragrance of a new dawn.

As we enter into the depths of Tanore, Manda or Mahadevpur, we discover teams of young peasant girls and boys, of all ethnic and religious colours, busy discussing their most recent achievements or challenges. They are having their weekly meeting. They start out with a prayer. This week their adivasi friend Elizabeth recites from her religion and their Muslim friends and others listen with solemnity. Then they take an oath to 'love their people, their village and their country'. They follow this ritual every week and in turns, they listen to messages from all religions. They are practicing inclusiveness.

The story of the Barefoot Researchers is a story of hope.

By Sharmeen S. Murshid, Sociologist, CE, Brotee