Employing children as domestics is illegal. Yet, this is one law that is broken with impunity again and again.
What a way to begin the week after the long Easter weekend. First, we got the news about baby Afreen in Bengaluru, whose father has allegedly beaten her to death. He did this apparently because he wanted a son and was mad at this wife for producing a girl. Then in a village near Jalgaon, Maharashtra, a 19-year-old girl was strangled to death. The chief suspects are her father, uncle and grandmother. The reason: she was in love with a boy from another caste. And in Mumbai, the police arrested a 20-year-old man who was trying to abduct two minor girls.
But distressing as these reports are, the news from Delhi the previous week of the 13-year-old domestic left locked in a flat by her employers who went off to Bangkok is even more chilling. The facts of that case are now well known and even the international media has reported them. The couple, both medical doctors, have been arrested and charged under various provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act and the Indian Penal Code. The girl, rescued by the fire brigade when neighbours reported seeing her on the balcony crying, has now been taken to a shelter. And the man who brought her to Delhi from Jharkhand has also been arrested.
This story, however, does not end here. It is the beginning of another story, one that gives us a glimpse into a nether-world, one where children are kidnapped, stolen or sold into servitude from some of the poorest parts of India; a world where these children have no choice, no voice. When we think of trafficking, we usually think of the sex trade. In fact, many children are trafficked into domestic and other forms of labour and are never detected.
The story of the 13-year-old girl in Delhi is not an exception. Every now and then similar stories are reported in the media. In Mumbai, we still remember the horrific tale of 10-year-old Sonu who was tortured by her employers and eventually died from the injuries.
But there are two aspects of this story that are particularly worrying: indifference and impunity. Let us take the latter first. In October 2006, the government included domestic work in the Child Labour Act. Earlier, children under 14 years were prohibited from working in a number of hazardous industries that were identified. After 2006, the law banned children from being employed as domestics or to work in dhabas and restaurants. Yet, many like the educated professional couple in this case, think nothing of breaking this law.
Usually, when people like them are asked why they employ children, they come out with a set of standard excuses: “We were looking after the child as if she was our own”. “We were feeding and clothing her, something she would not get in her village”. “She is like a member of our family”, etc. But the point is that they are breaking the law. And with impunity. The fact that so many affluent and middle class people do this is because they are confident that the law applies to others, not to people like them. In fact, they firmly believe that most laws apply to others, not to them.
Data is not easily available on this issue but roughly 20 per cent of the 12.6 million child workers in India (these are official figures and therefore a gross underestimation) are domestic workers. Of these, the majority are boys. But girls too work as domestics and are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Both boys and girls suffer various levels of physical abuse.
The other side of impunity is indifference. How many of us turn our faces away when we see a woman being harassed, a child being beaten, a law being flouted? No one wants to be involved. I wonder how many people in the housing colony where this couple lived were aware that a child was working in that house? What stopped any of these people from reporting this to Childline, which has a well-advertised number (1098) that anyone can call and an email address where a complaint can be sent?
We are not helping any children, including our own, if we justify employing children to work in our homes. We are flouting not just the child labour laws but also the constitutional provision that gives every child the right to compulsory and free education. Sadly, in India, being educated and part of the better-off class does not necessarily add up to enlightened attitudes. As with dowry, the more we learn, the more we earn, the more we slip back in our attitudes.