By Deepanjali Rao:
Have you ever had a child serve you a glass of water at your friend’s or relative’s place? Did you feel bad about it? Perhaps for a while, before you got back to doing your thing because you aren’t at fault and it’s none of your business, right?
I faced a similar incident when I went to visit my friend at her house. They belong to the upper middle class. A small girl opened the door when I rang the doorbell. I didn’t pay too much attention at first. They had a hyperactive dog who was way too excited to see me. So, aunty called another girl and asked her to keep the dog away from me. After exchanging greetings with aunty, I went ahead and met my friend in her room.
A few minutes later, one of those little girls came and offered me a glass of water – and then later, a plate of snacks. I felt uncomfortable that a child of that age was serving me. Had she been someone I knew, probably I would’ve been the one serving and taking care of her – instead of the other way round. Sometime later, my friend called one of the girls and gave her some work to do. All of this happened while I kept thinking to myself, “What’s going on?”
I asked my friend why they have two girls working for them. She said that one took care of the dog and the other did the small household chores.
“Don’t you feel bad?” I asked, “Because, you know, it’s child labour.”
She replied, “See, they live a very comfortable life here. Even if we send them back to their homes in the village, their parents would send them to another house which may have worse conditions.”
I said that they should be studying at this age. She replied, “We actually teach them at home. If we send them back, they won’t go to school anyway, because they don’t want to and their parents won’t send them.”
I thought to myself, “What if your daughter refused to go to school? Wouldn’t you ‘ensure’ that they did no matter what, or would you make them work at home instead?” She also said that they don’t even get two good meals in a day back home. “Here we give them good food, good clothes, they watch TV all day with my mom and they play with the dog. We treat them quite well. It’s not like we abuse them. And, in return, they do small jobs like these.”
This happened almost two years ago. Even today, things are the same. I’m actually confused about what should be done here. Should one complain or not? Would their lives become worse if they went back to their homes?
Despite these concerns, I think it’s very wrong. I mean, child labour is a punishable offence. Even if you’re not physically abusing the child, you’re abusing them mentally and emotionally. Landless labourers are not ‘happy’ with bonded labour – but if they have people offering them money for the small tasks that their child performs and is promised a ‘good life’ – why would they not take the offer even if it causes them the pain of detachment? They need money. If there’s demand and they have the ability to supply, they will – if they’re getting paid for it. That’s the situation we have put them in.
A 10-year-old child has a right to education, play, study, have friends and enjoy free time – and not serve glasses of water and juice to guests, cut vegetables, lay the table, wash utensils, help you in the kitchen and do all the small tasks of our houses. Those little hands were not meant to do these.
When people like you and me take such offers and pay money for these services, we tend to encourage it. What if we refused to take part in it? What if we didn’t also let such things happen if we saw them happening around us? It could change our country for the better.
But it’s really sad that so many of us think that we alone cannot change the system because it’s already screwed up to such an extent that we cannot help it. We say the government has to do something about it. When you and I don’t cooperate and participate in such things, ‘allow’ it to happen and consider it to be ‘normal’, we are to be blamed.
If you would really like to help these kids and think that they would be deprived of education otherwise, why not sponsor their education? Why not do something productive so it doesn’t contribute to the existing problem in the name of ‘taking care’ of them and giving them a ‘much better’ life? Most of us tend to be spectators. Many of us believe that we do no wrong and that everyone else is responsible.
I, myself, have been a spectator of child labour at the house of my close relative. The boy was 10 years old when he was brought home. He would do all the small jobs at home while the rest of the work was performed by an adult housekeeper. This boy literally grew up with us. He is about five years older than me – and his childhood was spent taking care of the house, cleaning and dusting it once in a while, folding and drying clothes, laying the table, ensuring that everything was in place before my cousins left for school, taking care of the younger child, serving water, snacks, tea to guests and many other small things.
I remember that when my cousin couldn’t find one of her socks in the morning, she would call him. Only he knew where every little thing was in the house. He was treated extremely well by them. But, no matter how well you treat that child, you cannot get away from the fact that you took away his childhood. He was one of the most talented people I have ever met. He could sketch and paint amazingly well. On the birthdays of the family members, he made beautiful cards. He even gave me one on my birthday which had my picture and a nice message in English. He learned and practised English with us. He also danced very well. He knew how to ‘moonwalk’ and do a kind of break dance. In fact, he watched those dance shows on TV and could perform much better than the contestants. He sang like a professional Telugu singer. He made all of us laugh at every opportunity he got.
If you’ve got the money to send them to school, do so. By using them at home as a domestic help, you’re contributing to the problem. In the name of taking care of the child and giving him better facilities, you’re taking away their childhood, playtime, and you’re depriving them of all the things that a child of their age should have. There’s probably no physical abuse – but there is emotional abuse at some level, intentional or not.
Many say that if we send them back, they’ll be in worse conditions and that someone else will hire them anyway. But you don’t have to contribute to the problem. If you can, help them progress in life. If there’s no demand, the supply will stop someday. That child could probably change the world if only they were given a chance to be free and educated.
Next time you see child labour in a person’s house, ask yourself if it’s fair. Ask your conscience whether it’s the right thing to do if you ‘allowed’ it to continue. What if the child was yourself or your child? Would you be capable of leading the kind of life you are living today, had you been subjected to child labour, denied your childhood and education – which should be every child’s right? We need to begin by bringing about a change in our mindsets.