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Child Labour Exists In India Because Of Our Collective Apathy

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Trigger Warning: This article talks about child sexual abuse.

If you have watched Harry Potter, I am sure you must have felt very bad after looking at Harry Potter’s condition at his relative’s home. I am sure you must have wished every bad thing to happen to Harry Potter’s relatives. I am sure you must have jumped out of happiness when Hagrid did all the weird magic tricks on them.

Harry Potter’s Cupboard Sized Room
A still from the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

I am sure Harry’s cupboard-sized room under the stairs, his sadness must have made you very emotional. But, what happens to us when we see these things in real life? Why do we not speak against child labour when we see such instances in front of us?

We all have seen young kids cleaning our tables in dhabas (roadside eateries) or hotels, we all have seen small kids lifting our luggage in railway stations. We all have seen kids serving cigarettes and ‘cutting chai‘ in tapris (tea-stalls), we all have seen kids doing construction work through the windows of our air-conditioned cars. We all seen elders screaming at small, young kids who beg in the streets.

But, we hardly make it a big deal. Why are we okay with it?

While talking about child labour, how can we not bring up child labour in industries? Do you remember the famous Sivakasi case? As reported by India today in 2013, out of a total population of 1,00,000 workers in the match and fireworks industries, the child-worker population was around 45,000. An estimated 44% of child workers were below the age of 15.

Child labour
In India, 10.1 million (3.9% of the total child population) are working, either as a main worker’ or as ‘marginal worker’ Representational image.

Imagine, the industries were set up in Sivakasi, as early as 1942-1943, but, it reached our judicial institutions only in the late 90s! Just imagine, some kids wake up whining about not wanting to go to school, but most of these kids working in the industries had probably never even seen a school. All they knew was about poisonous gases, dangerous tools, dangerous materials. They were always surrounded by the danger of death.

I hope ‘were’ is the right word to use here. I hope this doesn’t happen now because proper law enforcement in our country is too much to ask for.

Not only Sivakasi, but almost all the industries, like Surat’s textile industries, Surat’s diamond industries, Firozabad’s bangle industries, and more, all of them have similar stories.

Child labour
Why did it take so long for the apex court to ban it? Representational image.

Talking about child labour, how can we not talk about circuses? Though the Supreme Court banned children under 14-years of age in circuses, how can we be sure that this doesn’t happen now?

How can we say that all children have been rescued and rehabilitated? And why was it banned only in 2011, why did it take so long for the apex court to ban it?

We all have seen young kids doing stunts. They always smiled and made us smile. But, did you ever try to think about what’s behind their smile? That smile covered bruises, wounds, and what not! If you have not watched the KBC episode of Noble Peace Prize winner, Kailash Satyarthi, you must watch it today, where he talks about such instances.

Talking about child labour, let us also talk about a rarely discussed form of child labour– The Devadasi System.

This tradition can be traced back to as early as the 7th century during the reigns of Cholas, Chelas and Pandyas. This was mainly present in southern parts of India. But various newspapers suggest that traces can still be found. Devadasi literally means “Servant of God”.

Child Marriage
There is an obvious connection between child labour and the caste system here. Representational image.

In this practice, young girls, especially from the so-called ‘lower castes’ are married off to an idol, deity, or a temple. This is done by their parents or guardians themselves to ‘appease’ the gods. First of all, this marriage on its own is wrong because it is a case of marriage before attaining the age of consent! And, the worst part is, once they attain puberty, they become the ‘wife’ of the whole town. Meaning that anyone can exploit them sexually.

According to the tradition, the girl is sold to the highest bidder and she serves him till the time he wants her. She is then abandoned to beg in the streets or in front of temples or to be bought again by another man. The younger the girl, the higher her chances of being sold. They live as ‘sex slaves’ and are forbidden from marrying anyone. We don’t know how many cases are still there but even if one such case exists, it is a shameful thing for the entire society.

This tradition subsumed two of the most disgusting things – child labour and casteism. There is an obvious connection between child labour and the caste system here.

And, how can we forget those children ’employed’ as domestic workers?

We all have seen them around, either at our own house or at our relatives’ or neighbours’ homes. Sometimes, they are employed with the ‘permission’ of their parents (Kudos to us for thinking that their permission is given voluntarily and not under the compulsion of poverty or indebtedness.). And, most of the time, they are employed without the permission of their parents. Basically, they are trafficked.

This also includes trafficking for sexual purposes. Do you remember that scene from Bajrangi Bhaijaan where Munni was sold to a brothel? That scene brought tears in the eyes of so many people. Well, there are millions like her. Young boys are also exploited sexually. The worst part is, most of them are sold by their own family members for amounts as meagre as ₹100-200

फोटो साभार- Flickr
Representational image. Source: Flickr

We should remember one thing while talking about domestic work and child labour is that there are many ways it manifests and can happen in any household.

This happens mainly to girls in so many households but nobody cares. They are openly asked to not go to schools. They are always encouraged to do household chores. They wash utensils, clothes, draw water from wells and what not!

Even boys are made to do agricultural activities, hard labour, even during their school hours. So, is it not child labour just because they are their own child? According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), in some cases, of course, it is!

According to ILO, The term ‘child labour‘ is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development. It refers to work that:

  • Is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or
  • interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.”

Article 3, of the ILO convention No. 182, also lists the worst form of child labour. Some of them are as follows – “All forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery; the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances, etc.”

ILO also clarifies that “Not all work done by children should be classified as child labour that is to be targeted for elimination. Children’s or adolescents’ participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their schooling, is generally regarded as being something positive. This includes activities such as helping their parents around the home, assisting in a family business or earning pocket money outside school hours and during school holidays.”

But, there is a very fine line between these practices and practices of child labour.

In India, after the 2016 Amendment in the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, the definition of child labour has substantially changed. This amendment (with slight changes) was in conformity with ILO conventions numbers 138 and 182, and the UNICEF also accepts it. This amendment received praise as well as criticism.

I feel sad writing this, but on the one hand, some kids dream of becoming an IAS officer or a doctor, but on the other hand, some kids dream of escaping the trap they have fallen into due to their circumstances. Where some kids cry because of small bruises, for these kids, bruises end up becoming their ever-lasting companions.

Where some kids plan their birthday parties, some kids pray to not get hurt. Where some kids are in the habit of hearing ‘mam/sir’, these kids hear the most disgusting abuses every minute. Where some kids get angry that instead of a chocolate cake, they got a vanilla cake, these kids pray for two substandard meals a day. When some kids only want branded clothes, some children have to be satisfied with torn clothes and shoes.

Why does this happen? Are the laws insufficient? Absolutely not!

On papers, Our country always appears to be green but practically, it always lags behind in terms of law enforcement. When we have so many laws to deal with it, like Article 24 of the Constitution to prohibit employment of children in factories etc., Article 23 to prohibit traffic in human beings and forced labour, Article 21-A which ensures Right to Education, Article 21 which provides Right to Life and Personal Liberty.

These are fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution which address child labour. Not only that, but we also have various legislations like Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO) to deal with sexual offences, The Information Technology Act to deal with things such as child pornographic materials etc., Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009; Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956; Various sections of Indian Penal Code. Apart from that, we have various policies like The National Policy on Child Labour.

Representational image.

Not only that, but India is also a signatory to various conventions like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), and various ILO conventions.

But still, the global figure of child labourers stands at 168 million (2012). In India, as per the 2011 census, the total child population in India in the age group (5-14) years is 259.6 million. Of these, 10.1 million (3.9% of the total child population) are working, either as a main worker’ or as ‘marginal worker’, of which 5.6 million are boys and 4.5 million are girls. In addition, more than 42.7 million children in India are out of school.

Why does the law not get enforced? Is it always the fault of the authorities? No! We are also to be blamed. These things happen because for us it is not a serious matter, for us it is normal. The day it will start bothering us, I do feel that half of the problem would be solved.

Still, I am hopeful because I can still see a ray of hope amongst depressing statistics. The incidence of child labour has decreased in India by 2.6 million between 2001 and 2011. This proves that we can still bring about change, and that change can be brought by making these ‘small’ instances of child labour, a big deal.

Featured image for representation only.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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