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Give them back their childhood

The estimated number of child labourers in India varies between 20 million and 110 million. Of this a large proportion consists of girls, an indication of the magnitude of girl child labour. MYTHILY SIVARAMAN reviews the public hearing on girl child labourers held in Mysore in March.

Sonal Danabhai Baraia's father had to undergo a surgery when she was 12. An immigrant from drought-prone Bhal, and eldest of four sisters, the Gujarati girl was pulled out of school and sent to weaving plastic ropes to pay for the surgery. She works for 12 hours, then runs errands for the owner and earns Rs. 30 a day.

Fourteen-year old Rinku of Uttar Pradesh had to stop school to pay off a loan of Rs. 3,500 her father had taken from the owner of a dhaba on a highway; she has been working there for three years now. There are 15 other children, including young girls from Nepal. Rinku said, "The owner beats us if we break plates. The truck drivers use bad words and also beat us. We serve them liquor and food."

Asked if she was comfortable sleeping there in the nights as all the girls did, Rinku paused and said "no", her face set. It was obvious that she and the other girls were victims of abuse.

THESE two were among the 39 girl child labourers from 13 States who deposed at a public hearing held in Mysore before more than 700 working children at the National Convention on Girl Child Labour on March 6. The convention was organised by the Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL), a network of 5,000-odd NGOs. The children were from a wide range of occupations — agriculture, domestic labour, quarries, brick kilns, sericulture, construction, fisheries, gem cutting, making matches, fireworks, beedi, agarbatti and rope — many banned by law. A panel of jurors comprising among others, Indira Jaising, leading lawyer and social activist, Jaya Srivatsav among others and headed by L.C. Jain, former member of the Planning Commission, heard their testimonies.

Paintings by the children ... an expression of their dreams?

Estimates of the size of child labour in India vary between 20 and 110 million. Of the 85 million children between five and 14 years who are out of school, 60 per cent are girls — an indication of the magnitude of girl child labour. Is the nature of work done by children simple and harmless, as many seem to think?

Sonal Danabhai said, "When I walk with the bobbin, the iron rod hurts my hands. When I cut plastic thread with teeth or hand, I bleed. When I make a mistake the employer abuses me verbally and beats me with the bobbin or iron rod. "

A heartrending case was Nirmala of Tamil Nadu, a worker in a rice mill in a 12-hours-a-day job that fetched her broken rice as wage. Her left hand was chopped off when she tried to release her skirt, caught in a machine. The belt pin of the machine also injured her face. She was just 13. Her injury took a year to heal, with her parents borrowing Rs.15,000 to pay for expenses. She still suffers from bouts of vomiting blood, headache and giddiness. No case was filed against the employer, as his present whereabouts are not known!

A tragic irony that showed in these hearings was that, in a social setting strongly conditioned by preference for sons, female infanticide and foeticide, the girls' labour and meagre earnings were critical components of their family earnings, enabling the privileged sons to study. Chitra of Tamil Nadu, had to quit school at Std. VIII, as her brother had to be seen through college. She now works in a cashew factory while the brother, a B.Com degree-holder, is jobless. Similar is the case of 11-year-old Sujatha Mondal of Kolkota, who has been working from age nine. When her brother was sent to school, Sujatha was taken off from school and sent to a fish-processing unit to earn about Rs. 30-35 a day; her work often stretches to 13 hours a day.

Poverty and family debt burden were the primary causes for child labour in most cases. Twelve-year old Dheeratatu of Andhra Pradesh was forced to work in a brick kiln to pay off a debt incurred for digging a well in her house. When Anjura Khatun of Kolkata was in Std. V, she was stopped from school to support her family and to save money for her dowry, the minimum rate for which was Rs.7,000 in her area. She and her mother worked for a local agent who supplied them cocoons for spinning yarn and earned up to Rs. 84 a week. The girls had so internalised their role as the family's support system that there is no trace of self-pity in them. When 15-year-old Revathy, the little fish vendor from Tamil Nadu, was asked who will get her older sister married, as their parents were dead, she promptly retorted, "Why, I will save money and get her married." Revathy, who had studied up to standard V, had been selling fish since she was 10, when her parents died leaving behind a loan of Rs.10,000. She is able to earn Rs. 50, she says with pride, but also complains of bouts of headache and leg pain. She has to put up with harassment from the village youth and bus conductors.

The Jury held the Government guilty of violating many provisions of the Constitution and of "increasing the vulnerability of children in labour by premature and thoughtless opening of the economy to the forces of globalisation, especially in sectors like fish processing, cotton pollination and floriculture where the girl child phenomenon is prominent." More significantly, the verdict opined: "the distinction of hazardous-non-hazardous work is fallacious in the context of the child, especially the girl child. The fact she is a girl makes her vulnerable to sexual harassment, trafficking, to HIV/AIDS, sexual stereotyping and health hazards arising out of inhuman working conditions and malnutrition. The law is insensitive to the above dimension where hazard is defined from the point of occupation and not the child."

The CACL has been drawing attention to the UN Convention of Child Rights that defines a person a child until 18 years. The Indian Government has ratified the Convention without reservations — with no obvious intention to implement, going by its shameful record in enforcing even the existing 14-year limit. The jury verdict was, in fact, harsh on the elected representatives: "Clearly our representatives, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers, Ministers are guilty of dereliction of duty to promote and protect the Constitution of which they were (and are) duty bound by the oath they take prior to entering office. Their guilt is compounded as the price for their dereliction of duty is being paid by millions of children of tender age whose unbearable testimony we heard the whole day on March 6, at Mysore."

Despite the rigours of poverty, the children's ability to dream was still alive, against heavy odds. They wanted to study, be self-employed, and become a social worker, a preacher, a singer, a teacher and so on.

Rinku, who complained of lorry drivers blowing cigarette smoke on their faces as the girls bent down to pour their drinks, declared: "I want to become a police officer to be able to hang all those who make children work!" Is the Government listening?

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