Law brings hope for child workers who face rape, violence and abuse
By Ashling O’Connor,August 3 Times Online,UK
India says it wants to tackle abusive employers but campaigners are sceptical
INDIA announced plans to outlaw the employment of children under the age of 14 as domestic help and in the catering industry yesterday, as shocking details of the plight of child workers were revealed.
The Labour Ministry said that the employment ban would apply to households, restaurants and hotels from October. Those who break it could be jailed for up to two years.
But campaigners were sceptical that it would do anything to improve the lot of the country’s estimated 12.6 million child labourers.
Save the Children is preparing to publish a report on human trafficking in India that focuses on the fate of workers such as Nirubala Sardar, an 11-year-old maid who failed to press the household laundry properly. Her employer flew into a violent rage and turned the scalding iron on her bare skin instead.
She spent a week in hospital with severe burns to a third of her body and was in rehabilitation for two months. It took a further year before she spoke.
Two years later Nirubala still utters only a few words and is wary of adults. Nervously fiddling with her hands and adjusting her sari to conceal the garish scar tissue on her arms, she resolutely avoids eye contact.
Manabendra Ray, the national project manager for Save the Children, had tears in his eyes as he told her story: “She was in a terrible way. Her body was so badly burned. I don’t know how people can be so cruel.”
In her village of Rajabati, a two-hour drive from Calcutta, Nirubala is back in school alongside scores of girls with grim tales of torture, serial rape and ritual humiliation behind closed doors in apparently respectable neighbourhoods.
Chanchala Sardar (no relation), 13, was allowed to eat her meagre rice rations only from the same bowl as the pet dog. Forced to sleep under the stairs, she received unwelcome nightly visits from her employer’s teenage son. “If I complained to the father, I got a beating,” she said.
Kanika Gayen, 17, bears the scars — across her forehead and right cheek — of three years with a Calcutta family. Repeatedly raped by the 17-year-old son, she sustained her worst physical injuries when he threw her down the stairs.
Nirubala, Chanchala, Kanika and millions like them are the usually invisible victims of India’s lucrative human trafficking industry, catalogued in Save the Children’s report based on interviews with more than 500 children. It spews forth horrific statistics: 68 per cent faced physical abuse; 20 per cent were forced to have sexual intercourse; 50 per cent had no time off; 32 per cent of their families had no idea where their daughters were working.
On the inland flood plains of West Bengal, tiger prawn cultivation is big business. One kilogram can fetch 1,000 rupees (£11.44) at market. For the same price, a “placement agent” can procure a naive young worker and turn a healthy profit.
These middlemen pluck girls and boys — mostly school dropouts — from poor rural areas, luring them to the cities with the promise of paid work or the prospect of a good marriage. But the reality is nothing like the sales pitch. Most find themselves serving their employers’ every whim and they are rarely paid their dues. The lucky ones get a message home and are rescued by the Save the Children network, which reintroduces them to school or vocational training.
Shamima Khatoon, a regal-looking 40-year-old, runs a beautician course for abused girls. In three years she has rescued nearly 100. “Children cannot speak up for themselves so people know by scaring them, they will keep them for work,” she said. “These people should be punished.”
Few are. The agent who sold Nirubala was arrested and the woman who burnt her was reported to the National Human Rights Commission but these are the exceptions. “Unless the parents press charges there is little anybody can do,” said Sister Cyril, an Irish nun who runs a Loreto school in Calcutta.
There are signs that mistreatment of domestic staff is becoming less socially acceptable.
Last month Bombay police arrested four members of a relatively well-to-do family on charges of murder, sodomy and rape after their ten-year-old servant was found hanging from a ceiling fan. Their false claim of suicide was exposed by the autopsy, which showed that Sonu Savle had been sexually tortured with an aluminium rod, beaten and smothered to death before being hoisted with a sheet. The little girl’s transgression? To try on some lipstick from a dressing table.
FIGHTING BACK FOR A CHILDHOOD
An estimated 12.6 million children work in India
Under-14s are about 3.6% of the labour force; 90% in rural family settings, 10% in manufacturing
Fabrics, firecracker and football industries are most implicated in the exploitation
International pressure has grown on India since pictures of children in sweatshops, hunched over footballs bearing the Fifa logo, caused outrage before the 1998 World Cup
Fifa says it only endorses child-labour-free balls. Companies including Reebok and Nike say they make similar checks on products
Global March Against Child Labour said that 10,000 children, each earning about 45p a day, stitched balls in Jalandhar and Meerut before the World Cup in Germany
India’s Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act has banned employment in mining and textiles since 1986
The International Labour Organisation estimated in 2002 that there were some 352 million economically active children worldwide, of whom 246 million could be counted as child labourers
In sub-Saharan Africa 29% of children aged 5-14 are working (48 million). In Asia and the Pacific the figure is 19% (127.3 million), Latin America and the Caribbean 16% (17.4 million) and the Middle East and North Africa 15% (13.4 million)
In Brazil the number of 10-17-year-olds at work fell in the period from 1992 to 2004 from 7,579,126 to 4,814,612
This year China banned under-16s from working