Shanti’s tale sheds light on child labour

THE NATIONAL

NEW DELHI // The wealthy couple, both doctors, were on holiday in Thailand for a couple of weeks.

Their 13-year-old maid, “Shanti”, was locked in their New Delhi apartment, alone, with bread that ran out within two days. She was rescued by neighbours and a charity, and the doctors were jailed this week, denied bail and are awaiting trial.The minimum working age in India is 14. This week’s court decision was hailed by activists, who praised the judiciary for taking a strong stand on child labour.

Refusing bail for the couple, Judge IS Mehta said: “confining a minor maid servant in a flat without food and locking the flat from outside is inhuman conduct”.

When she was rescued by ladder, “Shanti”, whose real name cannot be given because she is a minor, was starving, said Nishi Kant, the executive director of Shakti Vahini.  Shakti Vahini is a charity that combats child labour. Her employers had left her only flour and salt to make roti, Indian flatbread.The food was meant to last a week. It ran out in two days, he said.

Hearing her cries for help, neighbours called Shakti Vahini to help save her because they could not reach her. Carried down from the third-floor apartment, Shanti was taken to a shelter run by Shakti Vahini.

She had bruises all over her body and was missing hair, both signs of physical abuse, the organisation said. She was being monitored in her apartment with CCTV cameras placed around the house to track her movements. “A child is not capable of housework. Every aspect of having a child work in a home is considered hazardous by law,” said Mr Kant.

He said people who employ underage workers often resort to violence to instil fear in them. There are 1.9 million children below 14 working in India, according to various government and independent studies. They are often forced to work in homes, corner shops, construction sites and in the cigarette-making business. News of Shanti’s rescue has caused outrage in a country used to cruelty and abuse, where three-year-olds break rocks for a living.

It came on the heels of several other high-profile cases, including that of several minors rescued in Lucknow, Delhi and Mumbai – all allegedly abused by their employers. India’s growing economy has created a massive urban middle class who are looking for domestic help for the first time, a status symbol in India. Many prefer to hire children, said Mr Kant.

“If the husband and wife are both working they want someone quiet in the house,” Mr Kant explained. “They don’t want to employ a grown person because that person will have demands. With a minor, they know they can control any problem.”

The demand for child maids has changed how child trafficking rings operate over the past five years. Where underage girls were once bought and sold for the organ and sex trade, they are now being increasingly routed into bonded labour and into people’s homes, said Mr Kant. India is the world’s fourth-most dangerous country for women, who suffer serious violence through trafficking and domestic violence, according to a study by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The reason is simple,” said Kailash Satyarthi, the founder of the New Delhi-based Bachpan Bachao Andolan – Save the Childhood Movement.”This is cheap and docile labour. It is a status symbol to have 2-3 maids, who will sit outside the cinema hall with your child or walk in the mall with you,” he said.

But he said pressure from the judiciary, which is keen to enforce child labour laws, is slowly turning things around.

 sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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