Geetha was twelve years old when her family sent her to work, making her the second child in her family to drop out of school. With neatly plaited hair, a blue skirt, a green blouse, and a soiled satchel, she entered the house of her employer, not knowing what lay ahead. She saw her aunty talk to the lady of the house, in a language she hardly understood. ‘This house is even bigger than my school,’ she thought.
The next moment, her aunty took her to the backyard of the house and showed her the room she would be living in for the next ten years. A dingy room, with just a mattress and a broken table, she kept away her belongings to go see her new workplace. Her employer, dressed in a pink Banarasi silk saree, showed her around the house. Everything then seemed to swish by. Her day started at 4 am, with sweeping the staircase and the verandah where the potted plants smelled of early morning freshness. The dew drops would get coated by the dust from the broom, but Geetha never cared. She then watered the plants and hurried to the kitchen at the strike of eight. Her intense work had just started. Before her daily work routine, Geetha would get a few minutes to have her breakfast – two slices of bread and a cup of tea. Cooking, washing the vessels, and clothes were only a small part of her daily chores.
Time had frozen, even though ten years had passed. She lost touch with her family. Her childhood friend Chaaya had begun to work in the same neighbourhood. Geetha saw her, while she took her employer’s Labrador for its daily walk. At 22, she mastered the art of working like a robot. Laughter and joy were alien to her. Her only companion was the candle in her room.
Geetha’s story is one amongst the 10.1 million child labour stories you will hear. Forced to drop out of school at an early age, Geetha’s education went for a toss, with no access to education, job opportunities or a better quality of life. She may grow up to be an unskilled labourer, even as we debate over skill development in India. This threat looms large over India’s 400 million-strong workforce. Over 94% of India’s working population is part of the unorganised sector. And where does this place our country on the global map? In the light of growing claims about India’s growing prosperity, what are we doing about our children, especially our girls? Is ‘Beti Bachaao, Beti Padhaao’ only a mockery of our girl children? Honestly, I have no answer. I know no one who does.
While news channels continue to discuss and shout about the country’s children, Geetha is still doing the dishes. Her redemption is yet to come! Are our girl children only for slogans? I wonder.