Children need systems that are inclusive and driven by them, systems that will enable them to respond to their feelings and needs at any time. – Jeroo Billimoria
A social entrepreneur is known for building huge, global coalitions, Jeroo Billimoria first started in Mumbai, working with street children. She saw how their precarious living conditions and acute level of poverty made street children highly vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and health issues, such as illness and injuries.
Ms. Billimoria, then a professor at Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS), founded CHILDLINE, the country’s first initiative to make getting help for street children, such as police aid and health treatment, as simple as dialling a phone number. CHILDLINE, which is manned by street children, combines 24-hour emergency telephone services with follow-up help to reduce their suffering.
She began interacting with youngsters who were living at railway stations or in Mumbai’s night shelters. Children in distress began to call her at all hours of the day and night. Although Ms. Billimoria found legitimacy in her job by receiving and responding to the pleas of youngsters and children in need, she realised that she could not aid the hundreds of children who required assistance.
She realised that a tele-helpline may meet a need stated by children on the streets: the desire for immediate assistance whether they are unwell, injured, or simply want to chat to someone. What was needed was a single point of contact to swiftly link children to the assistance they require during or after a crisis.
While the solution seems easy, realising that desire was a difficult road in and of itself. It took three years, two children-led dharnas, and the threat of a hunger strike to ultimately establish 1098 as the national toll-free number for children.
However, there appeared to be an issue. One that may have appeared trivial but had a significant influence on the plan’s success. It was just that ‘One-Zero-Nine-Eight‘ did not appear memorable enough for children. There was no connection to the number. Then the children came up with a solution. One of whom proposed to Ms. Billimoria that it be renamed ‘Ten-Nine-Eight‘ instead!
As is customary, children saw what adults did not, and this is how ‘Dus-Nau-Aath‘ came to be.
Free CHILDLINE service soon spread to over 50 Indian cities. And then to 143 countries.
More recently, Jeroo focuses on helping all young people understand their economic rights and access financial services through Child & Youth Finance International. Financial literacy enables young people to stay safe and plan for their future. To date, this global coalition has reached 32 million children and young people in 150 countries.
What led Jeroo to break out from being a good professional like all those around her? Her early experiences gave her the knowledge of a far bigger power—that of a change-maker. Around age 11, she organized all the domestic workers in her apartment block to open bank accounts. She traces her interest in financial literacy and accesses back to this intervention.
She truly stepped out when she was 16. Her mother, a social worker in the schools for poor members of the Parsi community, focused on family life and other non-academic issues. Jeroo felt this was a mistake. Instead, she felt the effort should go towards academic issues because half of the students were dropping out due to failing their Maths or English courses.
Her mother, who was brilliant at helping Jeroo become an entrepreneur, asked her daughter to design solutions instead of just presenting a problem. Jeroo’s mother also introduced her to faculty at the Tata Institute. As Jeroo inquired how to teach English and Maths more effectively, several faculty members suggested that she visit Gloria de Souza, who was just then introducing “environmental education”, an alternative to rote memorization based on problem-solving in the real environment. Jeroo went to see Gloria and immediately they allied. Confidently, Jeroo sold this new approach of teaching to the head of the Parsi schools, while her mom encouraged her on and did not step in for the big meeting. Gloria trained Jeroo, and they worked together on implementation.
To this day, Jeroo empowers young people to find their power and become their change-makers. “If you have an idea and if you passionately want to change the world,” Jeroo advises, “start with small achievable things. Believe in yourself and be ready to make a million mistakes. And then you will be able to change the world.”
CHILDLINE services are currently available to children in 602 cities and districts, encompassing more than 83 percent of the Indian landscape, as of September 14th, 2021. This is made possible through a well-connected network of 1077 partner organisations and 144 Child Help Desks at railway stations and 6 at bus terminals. CHILDLINE has six regional call centres with centralised call centres.
Jeroo Billimoria, a global pioneer in social entrepreneurial start-ups that focus on children, their welfare, and their well-being. She exemplifies great leadership in the non-profit sector through her fearlessness and remarkable self-confidence, two qualities crucial to women’s success as leaders, as well as her boundless energy and skills in managing numerous social projects.