I recently visited a friend who’s the co-founder of HAQ, an organization fighting for child rights, at her office in Delhi. As I listened to phone calls pouring in, stories of abused children, I wondered how their child support team – totally committed, lovely people – survive emotionally and mentally. The cases are horrific. I am shocked and distressed. And sickened by the society we live in.
Last week, HAQ received calls reporting two different cases of abused children, both 13-year-old girls employed as maids. Aasha and Seema (names changed) from West Bengal and Jharkhand, Central India.
Aasha was lured to Delhi with job offers of a salary which would help her impoverished family back home in Jalpaiguri, one of West Bengal’s poorest districts. Last August, she was employed with a couple, both doctors, in a posh residential area. She was promised 2200 rupees ($43) per month, money she never saw. Every time she enquired about her salary, her employer thrashed her mercilessly.
On Monday night, she escaped and ran for shelter to a neighbouring house. The shocked neighbour informed police and dialled the child helpline. I was told the child had claw marks on her body and her eyes were popping out as a result of the beatings. Aasha was so traumatised, she couldn't speak. The police arrived and rushed her to hospital.
On Friday, the police arrested her employer under relevant sections of the Juvenile Justice Act, Child Labour Act and Indian Penal Code.
Seema, another 13-year-old domestic helper, was sold to an agency by her uncle, then totally abandoned. The agency sent her to work as a maid to a family of two doctors in a middle-class Delhi area. Her working day began at 6am when she would sweep and mop the house, clean the bathrooms, wash clothes and pots and pans and water the plants. She was not fed three normal meals a day but given just two rotis (dry unleavened wheat bread).
When the family went away for a fortnight to Thailand, they left Seema locked up for six days in their flat. The neighbour's maid saw the girl weeping on the verandah and reported her plight. The police have registered a case against the couple who are yet to return from Bangkok.
The demand for maids is high in all Indian cities. So is the exploitation of these vulnerable, migrant workers. There are reportedly around 2,300 placement agencies in Delhi, of which 325 are registered. But the sector is unregulated without any checks and balances. Often even the ‘certified’ agencies are found to be involved in human trafficking.
Domestic workers form the largest sector of female employment in the cities. In Delhi, according to activist groups, nearly 60 per cent of them are child labour or younger than 14 years.
To change this, stringent sentences must be handed out to both the agencies in the villages and cities, as well as the middle-class employers. A name and shame campaign should be taken up by TV and print media to discourage use of child labour.
Notification of abuse should be sent to the employer’s offices. For example, in three cases, doctors have been guilty of abuse. Shouldn't the Indian Medical Association bar these people from practising?
Currently, although we have excellent laws in place, few of them are implemented. Culprits get away scot-free. That’s the bane of our lives in India.