India: Girls thrown into child labour in double jeopardy - back breaking work & sexual abuse Print E-mail
 Kolkata, November 20, 2006

Child maids resigned to life of servitude


At the tender age of 13, Shika Bera is already aware that she has been stripped of her childhood for forever.

The pig-tailed, pale-faced little girl holds no hope of playing with other children or even of going to school, resigned to spending her life scrubbing floors and washing dishes as a maid for affluent middle-class families.

Since she was eight years old, Shika has worked as a maid in several homes across Kolkata where she has not only been subjected to back-breaking housework, but also to sexual abuse at the hands of her employers.

"My father took me from our home in the village. He told me I must work here in the city because we need money," said Shika, her small fingers nervously tugging at the sleeves of her tunic.

"In one house where I worked, the man forced me to look at dirty films. He touched me in places I didn't like and made me touch him," she said.

Shika is one of millions of children in India given up by their families into virtual slavery as domestic workers.

Hidden within the confines of the four walls of urban homes across the country, these child workers are exploited by employers and made to do strenuous labour for little or no pay.

But while a recent ban on employing children aged under fourteen in domestic services came into force, activists say it alone cannot break the shackles of servitude which have through the ages deprived millions of India's children of a childhood.

From Poverty to abuse

According to the labour ministry, there are 12.6 million children aged between five and fourteen working in the country - the largest number of child labourers in the world.

Activists say the real number could be five times higher and estimate that atleast 11.5 million children work in the domestic sector alone.

"It's difficult to say how many children do domestic work as it's such a secretive thing and you simply can't go around poking into people's houses," said Manab Ray, manager of Save the Children's Child Domestic Workers Project.

"Most are subjected to various forms of abuse, from unsafe working conditions and lack of food to being beaten, burnt or sexually abused," said Ray, who recently conducted a study on child workers in West Bengal.

The state is a notorious transit hub for child maids as it borders three of India's most backward states - Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa - and also shares porous, poorly guarded frontiers with impoverished neighbours - Nepal and Bangladesh.

"West Bengal remains a key transit point (for child labour). We have formed special teams who are coordinating with the border guards to plug holes along the border with Nepal and Bangladesh," said Raj Kanojia, the state's police inspector-general.

Traffickers and parents take advantage of the porous border to bring thousands of children - mostly young girls from poor rural families - into West Bengal every year before sending them to urban middle-class households across the country.

In the posh, leafy suburbs of the New Delhi - where one million of the city's 14 million population are child workers - young girls can be seen carrying heavy shopping bags, sweeping courtyards or hanging out clothes on balconies.

The children, many of whom are breadwinners for their families, are forced to work up to 15 hours a day to earn less than Rs 500 rupees ($10) per month which is sent home.

Some employers pay nothing, believing that providing leftover food, old clothes and a space on the floor for the child to sleep is more than enough, say activists.

Ban Welcome, but inadequate

A new ban on child labour was introduced on October 10th. It is an extension of India's existing child protection act which bans children from working in "hazardous" industries like matchstick and fireworks factories.

But child rights groups say the previous law has been largely ineffective and feel that without proper follow-up systems in place, the new ban against child labour in restaurants, teashops, hotels as well as homes may follow a similar fate.

"There need to be systems in place for repatriation, rehabilitation of rescued children as well as livelihood opportunities for the child's family as poverty is one of the root causes of the problem," said Carlotta Barcaro, from UNICEF India's child protection unit.

The law - punishing employers with a maximum fine of Rs 20,000 ($440) and/or a jail term of up to two years - also needs to be accompanied by a monitoring system to ensure that rescued children do not get back into the system, campaigners add.

But the most challenging task is to ensure that these children grow up under parental care, go to school and are able to play and enjoy their childhood, they say.

"The biggest problem is combating a tradition where employing children who are poor or of lower castes is considered quite normal," said Kailash Satyarthi, a children's activist.

But 14-year-old Namita Das, a servant for a family of six in Kolkata, holds little hope for her life to ever change.

"There are children the same age as me who live in the house where I work. I see them playing, going to school, having nice toys," said the pretty, dimpled girl.

"I want my life to be like that, but I don't think it will ever happen."