India's 'nowhere' girls 

Millions of young girls suffer from the effects of child labour in India, as Sharmila Joshi reports after a year of research in the State of Maharashtra. 

When the sun is rising over the millet fields around Temburne village, in India's west coast state of Maharashtra, Dhurpata Kasle sets out to graze a buffalo and some goats. 

Kasle's workday began at dawn. Before leaving for the fields, she has already helped her mother make dungcakes, swept their home, filled water from the village well and washed the clothes. 

In the fields, the 12-year-old keeps watch on the animals, stops them from straying into the crops, gives them water and dry grass and herds them back by six every evening. In between, she sits in the shade of a tree, to eat a lunch of dry bread and chutney. 

At times, grazing work - which earns her between Rs 2500 (US$64) to Rs 6000 (US$153) a year, or payment in grains or a goat from the cattle owner - is not available. Then, with a sickle, Kasle plucks weeds for Rs 20 (51 US cents) a day on the landowner's fields. When there is no work in the village, she and her parents, both landless labourers, temporarily migrate to other parts of the state, to labour at quarries or brick kilns. 

A few hundred kilometres from where Kasle is working, in Aurangabad district, Vinita Chauhan is having a similar day. She has woken at four, helped with the household chores, and by seven set off with her family to the sugarcane fields. Here, the 11-year-old picks the long cane stalks, cuts them with a sickle, ties them into bundles, and carries them to a bullock cart. 

"I would like to go to school," she says, "but if I don't work, how will we manage?" Chauhan's family, like millions of landless labourers across the country, migrates from the village for eight months every year, looking for work during peak agricultural cycles. 

Most such families leave the boys behind to continue with their schooling. Girls are taken along because leaving them may not be safe and because their education has low priority. 

In the multitude of fields across India, girls under 14 toil from dawn to dusk. Agricultural workers, boys and girls, constitute up to 85 per cent of the child labour force in the country. But because the work done at home is non-remunerative and labour in the fields forms part of the vast unorganised sector, they are not included as child labourers in official estimates. 

Boys also work in the fields, running ploughs, cutting ready crops, digging hard soil. But, in purely relative terms, they lead a better life. "In families here, the status of girls is secondary," says Machindra Gojame of the People's Institute of Rural Development, a non-government organisation (NGO) based in Ahmedpur. 

"The sons don't do housework in addition to field work. They have better chances of being sent to school," Gojame adds. "They eat first, the daughters often eat stale leftovers. Unlike girls, they get time to rest and play." 

One statistical profile on child labour, commissioned by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), calls child workers the "nowhere children": a category of the child population which is neither at school nor reported to be economically active. 

Girls who work from home tend to be the most invisible. However, girls also work in large numbers in some industrial units in the unorganised sector. For example, of the 45,000 working children in the Sivakasi match industry in Tamil Nadu, approximately 90 per cent are girls under 14. 

Girls are found in large numbers in a range of industries: the gem polishing trade in Jaipur, the coir industry in Kerala, the lock-making industry in Aligarh, the brassware industry in Moradabad, and the zari (gold thread) embroidery industry of Varanasi. 

Other girls work from home. Like Sazia Tabassum, eight, who rolls a mixture of black charcoal powder and tree gum onto thin sticks to make agarbattis (incense sticks). In stifling rooms in the slums of Nagpur, a city in eastern Maharashtra, women and girls sit rolling agarbattis through the day to earn Rs 5 (about 13 US cents) for 1,000 pieces. 

In Sinnar, a cigarette-producing area in central Maharashtra, women and girls roll beedis (leaf cigarettes) at home to earn Rs 30 (less than US$1) for 1,000 pieces. In Misalgaon, Mandakini Chowdhry, 12, goes to morning school and rolls beedis through the afternoons. "I would prefer to go out and play," she says, "but my mother needs help." 

In the cities too, such workers remain largely "invisible". No one knows, for instance, how many under-14 girls are domestic workers in Bombay. Patsy Khan, a social worker, believes the number could be 200,000. Again, no one knows how many work as rag-pickers, fish-cleaners, beggars. According to a study, at least 500,000 under-15 children in India are sex workers. 

Thus, all estimates of the number of child workers in India fall short of the actual figure for a number of reasons: multiplicity of definitions, diverse sources of data, and lack of information on the vast unorganised sector which employs the most children. 

Groups concerned with children's rights differentiate between child labour and child work. Child labour is that form of work which is detrimental to the growth and development of the child. Family work which interferes with a child's education, recreation or physical, mental or moral health, is also considered child labour. Most working girls in India would, by this definition, be classified as child labourers. 

Estimates of the number of child labourers in India vary - from 20 million to 100-odd million. The Union Labour Ministry claims only 20 million children under 14 work in the country. The Operations Research Group, an NGO, put the figure at 44 million in 1983. 

In 1991, India had a child population (0-14) of 296.9 million, nearly half of them girls. With over 50 per cent of the population living in abject poverty, it would not be incorrect to estimate that at least half the child population works - part-time or full-time. 

Most girl labourers in Bombay live in unsanitary slums or on the pavement, in conditions which threaten their health. Bina Nikalji, 11 and a rag-picker, lives in a slum atop a former hillock of garbage, adjacent to the city's dumping ground. Overflowing drains, flies, the stench and toxic fumes from the dump and the nearby highway, constitute Nikalji's daily landscape. 

Savita More, 10, a rag-picker, lives in a plastic-and-bamboo hut on a pavement in central Bombay. It takes More and her family over an hour every morning to fill water from a distant tap. Still, when she returns from sifting through rubbish all day, there is never enough water for a proper wash. 

When entire lives are geared towards basic survival, nutrition is an alien concept. Sometimes, when she is unbearably hungry, More looks for chicken remnants or rotting fruit in the garbage. 

Not surprisingly, malnourishment and illness like fevers, coughs, malaria, scabies and diarrhoea are common. In Maharashtra, almost 1.9 million children below five years are registered as malnourished under the government's Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). The number represents the proverbial tip of the iceberg. And Maharashtra is one of India's more "developed" states. 

In poor health already, girl child labourers face various occupational hazards: rag-pickers cut themselves on rust metal and pieces of glass in the garbage, domestic workers suffer body aches from washing clothes and swabbing floors, agricultural labourers have to confront cuts, heat-strokes and stomach cramps. Sexual molestation is also a constant threat. 

"I constantly have the agarbatti powder in my nose, my mouth, nails, eyes, everywhere," says Sujata Khobragade, 10, who rolls incense sticks in a Nagpur slum. Chandrabhaga Tidule, 11, of Hasrani village in Latur district, says, "My body aches with constantly squatting to weed and moving on my haunches. The heat is intense. I feel like not going to the fields at all but I have to go everyday." 

A recent analysis of data related to 19 states from the 1992-93 National Family Health Survey of India, says girls are breast-fed for shorter periods than boys, are less likely to be vaccinated or to receive treatment for diseases such as diarrhoea, fever and acute respiratory infections. Child mortality in the 0-4 age group is 43 per cent higher for females (at 42 per 1000) than for males (29 per 1000). 

Many girls, already in poor health, are married between the ages of 14-16. They bear children while still young and malnourished themselves. An upswing of female deaths in the age-group 15-19 years indicates the high mortality rate of teenage mothers. Over 100,000 women die in India every year from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. 

Education is another casualty in lives spent trying to survive. Work, poverty and social attitudes towards a daughters' education, ensure low literacy rates for girls. In Maharashtra, only 39 per cent of girls in the 4-14 age group are educated. In 1991, according to UNICEF, 60.8 per cent of India's girls aged 8-plus were illiterate. 

If a girl does manage to continue school alongside work, she may be compelled to drop out after Class 7. Most Indian villages do not have schools beyond this level. The costs of commuting to another school, the utility of her labour and concern about her safety ensure a high drop out. 

Yet, Article 45 of the Indian Constitution mandates, "free and compulsory education to all children until they complete the age of 14 years." 

Like such Constitutional provisions, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 also does not work. It only focuses on a handful of hazardous occupations where child labour is prohibited, ignoring the ill-effects of other forms of child labour. There have been almost no convictions of employers under this law, although it is flouted routinely. 

Punishing employers is not the solution. Child labour thrives in India because of social inequity, official neglect and anti-poor policies. For instance, despite the terrible literacy rate, the five-year plan allocations for education have been falling: from 7.83 per cent in the first Five-Year Plan to 3.5 per cent in the seventh Five-Year Plan. "As the problems of her children's education grew more," writes journalist P. Sainath in a book about India's poor, "India spent less and less on them." 

It is often said than unless India's enormous poverty is reduced, child labour will continue. But, as Justice P.N. Bhagwati, veteran jurist, says, "It is a myth that child labour is the result of widespread poverty. Child labour is one of the factors which perpetuate poverty. It is not right to condone it as a necessary concomitant of poverty." 

Child rights activists advocate free and compulsory education for all children under 14 as one imperative solution to child labour. If implemented, this would withdraw children from the labour force. The experience of several countries proves this to be true, points out Myron Weiner, eminent American political scientist. 

Enforced education must be accompanied by other measures: making the education system more relevant to employment, addressing the problem of adult employment, which is related to child labour, appropriate rural development, sensible budgetary allocations. But, 50 years after becoming independent, India still denies freedom to the majority of its children. 

Sarita's Story

Soon after coming to Bombay, Sarita Wagh was brought to a public hospital, battered and bruised. Her back was covered with scabs and wounds, her face black and blue, arms swollen, palms branded with a hot spoon. 

Six months earlier, Wagh, about 12, had left her village in Ratnagiri district in south Maharashtra, with a villager who had fixed for her a job as a maid. "I did not want to come," she recalled, "I had heard other girls in the village say being a domestic worker can be horrible." But, Sarita's father is dead, her mother is missing and her grandmother sent her off. 

So, Wagh, who has never been to school, left her home. Instead of working in the village - tending cattle, fetching water, washing dishes, cooking, looking after her younger brother - she went to work in the city. For Rs 300 (US$ 7.9), she laboured for a family of four: a couple who are both bank employees and their two small children. She washed pots and pans and clothes, swabbed, cooked, fed the children. 

Some weeks after this new life started, the violence began. The madam flew into a rage over a small mistake Wagh made. She started hitting the girl with a rolling pin. After that day, the violence did not stop. "If neighbours intervened, she would say it is none of your business, she is our servant," says Wagh. 

"She started beating me every morning and evening, with a stick, with slippers, she would punch me, burn me with a hot ladle. At times, her husband would also fling shoes at me. If I cried out, she would stuff my mouth with a piece of cloth. If I asked for food, she would singe my palm with a steaming spoon. She would not let me use the toilet or bathe. A neighbour gave me food and I bathed when she was away at work." 

She could not write home since she cannot write. She was not allowed to step out of the small flat in Mahim, north Bombay. The neighbour who gave her food and initially intervened, refused to mediate further. "I kept wondering how to escape. I would beg them to stop beating me and ask to be sent home. I was very frightened," recalls Wagh. 

One day, she was sent on a rare visit to a nearby shop. The woman shopkeeper saw her condition and called Childline, an emergency hotline for children in distress. Volunteers and the police intervened and Wagh was brought to hospital. 

Wagh's experience of violent abuse may be exceptional, not every domestic worker is treated so brutally. But paid domestic work is labour that innumerable girls perform for years, with no hope of occupational mobility. 

Wagh's options, even after being rescued, were limited: notorious state-run remand homes or back to her village. With luck, a shelter would be located for her. "I want to go back to my village," she said. "But what will I do there? Maybe I'll stay on and look for another job." In many cases, the next job for girls like Sarita Wagh is prostitution. 

Sharmila Joshi is a special correspondent with the Women's Feature Service in Mumbai (Bombay), India. Her research last year in Maharashtra was funded by a fellowship from the National Foundation of India. 


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