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Over 1 Crore Children Still Forced To Work In India: Where’s The Outrage?

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IJMEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #ViolenceNoMore, a campaign by International Justice Mission and Youth Ki Awaaz to fight against daily violence faced by marginalised communities. Speak out against systemic violence by publishing a story here.

There are 1.01 crore children between the ages of 5-14 being made to work as child labourers in India, as per Government of India’s Children In India 2018 report based on Census 2011 data. The ILO defines child labour as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. In its most extreme forms, child labour involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities—often at a very early age.”

Child Labour in India overview - UNICEF
Child Labour in India overview – UNICEF

Exploitation Of Children For Labour

Instead of being in school or at play or other constructive activities, what are these children being condemned to do? They are put to work on a range of activities that span repetitive low-skill work that doesn’t aid development for future employment opportunities, they are forced to be exposed to conditions devastating to health and safety in the agriculture, industry and service sectors.

The work involves long hours on a bewildering range of tasks such as transferring pollen in cotton plants, picking the crop with their bare hands, indentured on tea or tobacco plantations and brick making factories and construction sites; being sent down dangerous mines for extracting gold and diamonds, or confined to cramped workshops for cutting and polishing gemstones; working at slaughter houses and tanneries with minimal protection or under life-threatening conditions at fireworks factories.

The primary reasons for the continuing exploitation of children for labour are poverty, adult illiteracy and lack of awareness. Image via Getty

Children are very commonly employed in the murky underbelly of the fashion industry in yarn and spinning mills, and garment factory sweatshops, put to work from handling silkworms in scalding water to doing painstaking embellishment work. They are on the streets picking rags—carrying an entire recycling industry on their shoulders, or in homes doing domestic work either as employees of others or in the case of girls in their own homes where they are treated as free labour and not considered as deserving of education as their brothers.

The worst of all are the human trafficking situations of modern day slavery that children are thrown into, facing horrific abuse and lifelong trauma as bonded labourers or sold into sexual exploitation. Alongside the physical implications of this work, can we even begin to imagine the mental health consequences for these children and adolescents forced into labour?

Some of the primary reasons for the continuing exploitation of children for labour are poverty, adult illiteracy and lack of awareness, lack of access to meaningful education, family indebtedness, cultural factors, gender discrimination, migration (due to conflict or natural disasters etc.), and criminal enterprise. Several factors determine the type of work children are made to do: age, caste, gender and level of economic deprivation.

Education is the key to lifting children out of poverty, however education is the very first opportunity that gets taken away as they are forced to work to support families, sentencing them to remain in the vicious cycle of economic deprivation. Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim children are hit the hardest, given Indian society’s extreme prejudices towards these communities historically. Dalit girls are the worst affected (UNICEF/UNESCO report)—the harassment and abuse they face discourages their school attendance and becomes a strong factor in pushing them towards work instead.

Add to this, weak laws such as the  Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2016 which allows exemption for children employed in family businesses. A very large percentage of child labourers are from marginalised communities and they end up being employed by their own families for traditional trades and activities. So the law does not work to help such children have an option outside of employment.

Tackling Child Labour

Kailash Satyarthi. Image via Getty

India’s track record on child rights as scrutinised at the third Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in 2017 has not been something to be proud of, compared to the earlier two reviews. The number of recommendations given to India have increased, with Child Labour being at the very top of areas receiving heavy criticism from UN member nations. Recommendations included stricter definitions of what constitutes hazardous work, stronger institutional support for protecting children and adolescents from exploitation, and prohibiting child work in family businesses.

The government has increased child protection allocation in the 2018 Budget, however as Kailash Satyarthi, the renowned child rights activist has pointed out, without a concerted budgetary focus on education and tackling child labour, the Sustainable Development Goal to eliminate child labour by 2025 is not reachable. He reiterates that our Constitution guarantees children the right to education, security and freedom and any politician not working towards ensuring these is not fit to be in government.

Indeed simultaneously, any able citizen of the country needs to do their part in keeping the discussion strong and the pressure up on remaining alert and spreading awareness within their communities. In Mr Satyarthi’s words,

“Awareness is the first step of social change. So we have to be aware, and we have to also make others aware. As consumers, we have to be much more responsible. We should ask whether children are enslaved in the supply chains for producing those goods. If we have valid reasons to believe so, then we should have the courage to say no to such goods.”

We are ever so far removed from so much of what we consume today. Tracing the journey of commercial products that feature in any facet of our existence is difficult in this era. The clothes we wear, the sugar in our tea, jewellery we covet made of precious metals and stones, the materials that go into our mobile phones to the houses we live in… we must push ourselves to explore the origins of products, take time to explore the dark truths of exploitation that lie at the root of production.

We must confront ourselves with the thought that these dark truths include the fact that it is invisible children as young as five who fundamentally enable our comforts and privileges. We must be outraged and ashamed at this fact, and we must do our part in furthering the fundamental rights, dignity and protection that every single child deserves.

Featured image source: Getty
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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