Who is a child?

With different Indian laws defining the age of ‘a child' differently, the fight against child labour remains blunted

June 15, 2012 08:36 am | Updated 08:36 am IST

Defining childhood: Uniformity required in age of child labour. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

Defining childhood: Uniformity required in age of child labour. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

Ten years ago, in 2002, the International Labour Organisation launched the first World Day against Child Labour observed on June 12 every year. Earlier, in 1992, India became a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Encouraging as these two watershed events in ensuring universal child rights may sound, the very definition of the word ‘child' according to Indian laws remains ambiguous. The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as an individual who has not attained the age of 18 years. In India, different laws define the words ‘child' and ‘minor' differently.

At the receiving end of this ambiguity are children between the ages of 15-18. The clamour from child rights activists to include individuals belonging to the aforementioned age group under the category of children and preventing people from employing them is growing louder.

For instance –as per the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 – a child is defined as a person who has not completed 14 years of age. The act also prohibits employing children in 65 processes and 18 occupations that it views as hazardous, including beedi-making, tanning and brick kilns.

Other laws around child rights such as trafficking, marriage and juvenile justice have variable definitions of minimum age.

The Plantation Labour Act 1951 has separate definitions for child, adolescent and adult. According to it ‘child' means a person who has not completed his fourteenth year. ‘Adolescent' means a person who has completed his fourteenth year but has not completed his eighteenth year where as ‘adult' means a person who has completed his eighteenth year.

The Motor Transport Workers Act 1961, and the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act 1966, both define a child as a person who has not completed 14 years of age.

Matrimonial laws such as Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 add to the confusion. It states that a male cannot attain majority until he is 21 years of age and the corresponding age for a female is 18.The recent ruling by the Delhi High Court that “a Muslim girl can marry without the consent of her parents when she attains the age of puberty” has done little to address such complications.

Due to lack of a clear cut definition, the unorganised nature of work and cases not being reported, it's easier for the employers to employ a large number of children without worrying about the consequences, say child rights activists.

Child Rights and You or CRY, a Non-Government Organisation working for underprivileged children, analysed data from the National Sample Survey 2009-10. According to CRY's analysis of 13 states, 25 per cent of children in the 15-18 age group are employed in some income earning activity. The situation is worse among Scheduled Tribe (36.1 per cent), Scheduled Caste (29.2 per cent) and Other Backward Caste (26.1 per cent) categories. States with the worst record in employing children in the adolescent age group are Gujarat, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

According to CRY CEO Puja Marwaha, “The government should amend the law to ensure that all forms of child labour are prohibited for children up to 18 years of age. CRY considers all those between 0 to 18 years of age to be children. And we urge the government to bring uniformity in law when it comes to the definition of a child.”

To take on some of these challenges, the government has come up with initiatives including the Prevention of Offences Against the Child Bill, 2009 under which a child has been defined as any person who has not completed the age of 18 years.

However, in the larger context, the confusion surrounding the age of who is a child, remains. “So even before discussing further areas where laws like the Child Labour Act need to be applied, there needs to be some consistency on the definition of a child,” say child rights activists.

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