An endless search
Apart from working in hazardous jobs, many girls are employed as domestic labour. Little attention is paid to the burdens physical, social and mental they carry. KATHYAYINI CHAMARAJ examines their plight as the Campaign for Child Labour's national event on `Girl Child Labour' is held in Mysore this week.
I PARTICULARLY remember Yellamma, a bonded labourer on a farm growing roses in Anekal taluk of Bangalore district. She was working to pay off a loan of Rs. 4,000 taken to meet the cost of treating her father's illness. Yellamma attended a literacy class at night, so great was her desire to educate herself.
But could she seek no help from the Government? It appeared not because agricultural work is not considered hazardous for children and is not banned under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act (CLPR Act).
Selvi works as a domestic maid in a slum in Bangalore. Her mother insists that she goes to work, as Selvi's father is a drunkard. Selvi wanted to join a bridge course for working children but her mother would not hear of it.
Gracie worked as a live-in domestic maid with a family in Mangalore. In addition to work, she had to put up with the sexual advances from her employer.
There are other far more gory stories about child domestic workers bitten by their employers, branded with hot irons or even being chained. Many of these girls were either murdered by their sadistic employers or they committed suicide.
And yet, domestic child labour is considered non-hazardous under the CLPR Act. And the ironical list of highly placed persons guilty of abusing these vulnerable children begins with a Minister for Child Development herself in Karnataka.
The International Labour Organisation's Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labour clearly prohibits "debt bondage" and "all other work harmful or hazardous to the health, safety or morals" of girls and boys under-18 years of age. Despite this, the Karnataka Government, which released a State Action Plan for ending child labour in May 2001, refrained from banning child labour in agriculture and the domestic service sector.
Among those working in a sector that is identified as hazardous under the CLPR Act, and hence banned for children, I remember Mallamma, who was a bonded labourer in a silk-twisting unit at Magadi, Bangalore Urban district. She was astounded that the employer was liable to pay Rs. 20,000 for her education as compensation for employing her. Her mother, however, would not send her to school. It would be unfair not to repay the employer's loan, she felt.
Human Rights Watch in its latest report, "Small Change: Bonded Child Labour in India's Silk Industry", has stated that the Karnataka Government's ambitious Action Plan `was not in operation' a year after it was announced with much fanfare.
But more than in wage employment, more girls work within the home. The late Anil Agarwal was the first to draw attention to the invisible, unpaid and unrecognised work done by rural women and girls. The Report focussed on the thousands of miles walked by women in "endless searches" to find water, food, fuel wood and fodder.
More recently, the journalist P. Sainath made the startling estimation that the cow-dung used as fuel by women and girls saves the Indian exchequer billions of rupees in terms of foreign exchange for import of oil. With depletion of natural resources, women's "searches" would only have increased, there being no provision for alternatives.
Thus, providing running water to poorer households and slums is always "too expensive", even as cities build fountains to beautify traffic islands. Providing cheap cooking fuels to slum women is never on the agenda of governments, even as they promote petrol-guzzling, car-based economies by building flyovers and expressways. Building crèches so that girls can be relieved of sibling care is also unviable, since it is far easier to find resources for building revenue-earning shopping malls.
A significant point noted by Sainath was that women are always carrying "burdens" water pots or babies. But these physical burdens appear to symbolise simultaneously the various additional burdens mental, emotional, social and cultural that women and girls carry. That of being responsible for nurturing, passing on family values and preserving religious and cultural traditions.
Another feature noted by Sainath was that women spent a lifetime "bending"... . while they transplanted rice. This too is again symbolic not just physical bending, but also social and cultural "yielding". All the working girls I met were being asked to "adjust", "compromise" and "sacrifice", so that values like obedience and self-denial, or the imagined greater common good could be preserved.
A woman, or a girl, trying to lay down her "burdens" by refusing to perform her unjustly higher share of work is immediately subjected to all kinds of ostracism. She is expected to "bend" even at the cost of her self-respect.
Yellamma, Selvi, Gracie and Mallamma are being conditioned from their childhood to bear heavier burdens and bend uncomplainingly. Yellamma working as a bonded labourer so that her brothers could study; Selvi, giving up her education to support a drunken father; Mallamma continuing to work as a bonded labourer to pay back a loan so that her mother would not be accused of being ungrateful; and Gracie working as a domestic help even though she knew she would be sexually abused there.
All of them, it appears, would like to lay down their unjust burdens and stop bending. Yellamma's wooden face which resents herr suffering; Selvi clutching at my hand begging to be enrolled in a bridge course; the wistfulness in Mallamma's eyes as she dreams of not having to repay her loan are all proof. But the societal climate does not allow them to fight for their rights without extracting tremendous costs.
What would happen if Selvi, Yellamma, Gracie and Mallamma refuse to work and insist on studying? Would they continue to receive the same affection from their families? When will society provide a climate in which they can stand straight without bending, and not feel guilty about it?
(Campaign Against Child Labour is holding a national event on Girl Child Labour from March 5-7, 2003 in Mysore. There will be a public hearing in which girl child labourers will provide testimonies about their plight and urge the Government to evolve policies to more effectively protect their rights)
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