New Internationalist

Child worker abuse still rife in India

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.
Police raided the office of the placement agency which sent her to the doctors’ house but found it locked. The trafficker, who apparently specializes in luring kids to Delhi, is still on the run.

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.

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  1. #1 Ammu 04 Apr 12

    Couldn't agree more. It's a shocking state of affairs.

  2. #2 nirupama 04 Apr 12

    You wish your voice is heard. In a country wherein deadbodies are kept under medical observation and you are charged room fee and medical expenses..... there is ..... less said the better.

  3. #3 S 04 Apr 12

    I am so appalled yet again.. Your blog share with others what is often seen and seldom reported and never stopped. The topic though vile has tributaries that run long and deep in each country in the world, always hiding plumbing buried in walls and floors always hidden from view.
    I felt there was a deeper understanding of family, morals and value in India. This is what I saw, this is what I treasured, and this is what I believed. The plight of children the most innocent and vulnerable is a precious commodity in any country. Mislead or deceive by those close to them or employers who are unscrupulous whom they are entrusted to. There innocents leads them to fall prey, as they nobly set out to become the bread winner to earn money to sustain their loved ones. As a society we can no longer turn our heads and look the other way. The shame is worn by an entire nation; stricter laws are called for stronger penalties are needed. Deeply saddened me to read how mankind has fallen into such depravity. There are no words to express it.

  4. #4 Sneha 04 Apr 12

    I hear HAQ is doing a lot of amazing work towards combating child labor.

  5. #5 Aloke Surin 04 Apr 12

    I am sure most of us who have ever lived in Indian cities and towns have been witness to cases of child abuse as highlighted by Mari. Let me give you an example:

    A couple of years ago, while living in Mumbai, I was going up to the terrace late at night. We lived on the fourth floor of an apartment complex and there were no elevators. The open terrace was on the next level. It was during the cooler months, when mosquitoes abound in Mumbai. As I turned the dark corner (we did not have lights on the flight of stairs going up to the terrace ) I almost stepped on to a dark huddled shape crouched in a corner of the landing. On closer inspection it turned out to be a young girl around 12 years of age.

    She was sobbing softly as the mosquitoes swirled round her small face. On questioning, she said she was the maid in our neighbour's flat. Our neighbours at that time was a young couple from Delhi, educated and well travelled (they were flight attendants in an international airline!!). She told me that she had been turfed out of the apartment with hardly anything to eat and told to sleep the night outside on the stairs in the dark - this was because her young mistress was ’punishing ’ her for some perceived wrongdoing. The maid also told me that this had been happening for some time, with no one in the building of 20 apartments being any the wiser!

    I took the girl with me to see the chairman and secretary of the co-op housing society of which our building was a part of and we managed to solve the matter temporarily.

    There is an illuminating sequel to this story :

    Our neighbours moved out of the building some months later to a more expensive apartment in a different part of town.

    One day our doorbell rang and when we opened the door we saw an elderly couple with a clearly very rural background clutching some bundles and a small tin trunk standing there. They were looking for their daughter!

    They had come from a small village somewhere in Haryana. On further inquiries, it turned out that our erstwhile young couple had promised to feed and house and educate their little daughter in exchange for her work as a live-in maid, as well as pay a salary which would be sent to the parents. Sadly, there was no sign of any money, neither had there been any attempt at education as I had found out earlier from the girl on that night long ago. And now the couple had moved away. They had not even communicated with the parents for more than 6 months! As the couple had been rather aloof from everyone in that building, nobody knew exactly where they had gone to...

    After some persistent calls to the airline they worked for, I was able to get an address for the old couple.

    I still sometimes wonder at the final outcome of this story...all I can hope for is that the little girl was reunited with her parents and that the family found a better way out of their predicament...

    As one of the comments on this blog points out, there is a sickness pervading human society...

  6. #6 Shwetha 04 Apr 12

    Hi Mari,

    Thank you for sharing this story. I really cringe when I hear cases of child abuse like this i'm sure while you were there you heard more. Whenever I am in Bangalore I ask our maids to please educate their daughters first, instead of bringing them to work. They really struggle with access to funding, especially when someone gets sick. As a result, the girls end up working at such a young age to support the family. I feel there should be more support programs for the urban poor and migrant workers in big cities. If you know any, do let me know so I can educate myself and my network of friends and family in India.

  7. #7 Niral 05 Apr 12

    Mari, thanks for the story. I read about both the cases in our local TOI edition.

    Today there was an item which said that the Doctor couple who went holidaying in Thailand had finally been apprehended. from the time they returned to Delhi they had managed to avoid the police by moving around the city in their car and even sleeping in it during the night.

    Even though there is a law against child labour, I am especially appalled at how even the educated and that too doctors exploit children from poor families and there are even networks to cater to such people and with the law enforcers convinently looking the other way.

  8. #8 JOHN DENIS HORO 05 Apr 12

    In most of the unorganised sectors, similar situations prevail. This is, in fact, a very complex issue. On the hand, the girls from specific areas / places of Jharkhand, Assam, West Bengal, Chattisgarh and other States as well are 'lured' and 'misguided’ by private human trafficking agencies to Metros and big cities. This is obviously wrong, unethical and criminal activity. On the other hand, the girls too are to be blamed as they 'slip away' or 'run away' from homes with friends or relatives to 'venture' in the big inhuman world of domesticated slaves. There have been sincere efforts to extend guidance to such girls. Those who listen and follow the ‘right path’ - survive and those who don’t, they end up like Aasha and Seema.

  9. #10 Rob 10 Apr 12

    Comment from Rob: Mari . . . here in Nicaragua girls (12-18 years old) are recruited, supposedly to work as maids or in restaurants in El Salvador or Guatemala, and once arrived in those countries, are relieved of their legal documents and money, and converted into prostitutes . . . One young woman in Arenal, a victim years ago of this scheme, is now dying of cancer . . . . Un abrazo, Rob

  10. #11 Nishita 10 Apr 12

    I had the good fortune of meeting the founder of HAQ and just listening to her made me cringe!I don't know how you'll deal with it, but great work...keep going!!

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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