Girl Child Labourers in India: An Invisible Issue
Table of Contents
Despite India ´s fast economic growth since the 1990s, many challenges remain for youth at risk, particularly the girl child The Indian Girl Child who faces gender discrimination on various levels. Due to her lower status in the society, a girl child labourer is even more deprived. Child labour is still a prevalent issue in India. This article addresses a few general points of the issues of girl child labourers.
Definitions: Child, Child Labour, Child Work
In order to speak about child labour, one should look at its different definitions. Before doing so, it is also essential to give a definition of a child. By worldwide agreement, the younger a child, the more vulnerable he or she is and the less the child is able to defend herself/himself, gives a basis for a definition of a child. Nonetheless the age limit for a child differs in various countries, institutions, organizations and societies.Bajpai 2003, 2. The child’s age limit should formally regulate her/his activities, but the reality in the case of India is different. In his book Child Rights in India. Law, Policy, and Practice Asha Bajpai has given some examples in which activities of a child are normally regulated by age: when a child can leave school, when s/he can marry, when s/he can vote, when s/he can work, when s/he can be condemned by the law and when he can join the armyibid. Article 24 of the Constitution of India defines a child as anyone below the age of 14. However, Article I of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by India, defines a child as anyone below the age of 18. These two different definitions of a child within the same country show the difficulty in finding a consensus on this issue.
Children and/or child labourers are a heterogeneous social group. Therefore, a girl child labourer in rural Andhra Pradesh, Southern India, who is working in the household, cannot be compared with a male street child in New Delhi. In a broader sense, an Indian child labourer cannot be compared with a Peruvian or Ethiopian child labourer, may it be female or male. Although they all face the daily fight against their exploitative situation, one should make a differentiation rather than defining them as a homogenous social group. Different cultures, different sexes, different living conditions and standards and different daily working lives separate them.Liebel 2001
The wide range of literature, campaigns, organisations and governments offers different definitions of the term child labourer. The Indian network of around 700 organisations, called the Campaign Against Child Labour, has committed itself to the eradication of child labour in all sectors and has defined a working child as such:
Child Labour may be defined to include children prematurely leading adult lives, working with or without wages, under conditions damaging to their physical, social, emotional and spiritual development, denying them their basic rights to Access to Education, health and development. This includes children working in any sector, occupation or process, including the formal and non-formal, organised and unorganised, within or outside the family.
The organisation Free the Children defines child labour as a work done by children below the age of 14 “[…] which restricts or damages their physical, emotional, intellectual, social or spiritual growth as children.”http://www.freethechildren.org/youthinaction/child_labour_the_situation.htm, 6/4/2012United NationsICEF describes child labour as “one of the clearest and worst manifestations of how poverty has a child’s face”.UNICEF file undated, 10
When speaking of definitions, one should also draw a distinction between child labour and child work. The difference is seen in the outcome for the child. Child work can be beneficial and can enhance a child’s social, physical, mental, spiritual and moral development without interfering with schooling and leisure time. The activities of child work include helping the parents in their households and businesses after school. In contrast to child work, child labour hampers the “normal” development of a child, not only in a physical, but also psychological way. In general, child labour includes work done by young children, who have long working hours, no or insufficient access to health and education, or a lack of ability to attend school and who receive abusive treatment by their employers.Vijay Times, 30/3/2003
The distinction between child labour and child work is therefore essential. If one leaves out the economical thought of work, work can have four other different aspects: playful, gainful, specific on relations and identity, as well as the double function of survival and socialisation.Liebel 1998 It is an interaction between the personality and the surrounding of a child and implies an activity which aims for material goods, but also for relationships and the honour of oneself and one’s identity. Work can indeed be a very subjective act, depending on how a child sees her/his work.
Work and/or begging are different categories of children’s activities that give them an identity through their communication with costumers and other working children. As the author Antonella Invernizzi puts it, child work has three functions:
- The function of support: The child brings home some money with which s/he supports the family income or with which the family can finance her/his education.
- The function of socialisation: The child learns new abilities and learns to appreciate the value of work. Furthermore s/he learns to appreciate the solidarity within the family.
- The function of continuation: With the learned abilities the child is able to support the family with her/his earnings and can be autonomous if the parents die.Invernizzi 1998,71ff.
The United Nations definition is a bit different from the others: They [the definitions] range from normative ones based on specifications of minimum age for employment, to education-oriented definitions which define any child out of school as a child labourer or a potential child labourer; to rights-oriented definitions which consider any work that deprives children of any part of their fundamental childhood rights as constituting child labour. Depending on which definition is adopted, the resulting estimates of child labour vary greatly.UN System of India: Position Paper on Child Labour 1998, 13
There is one more distinction to note when speaking about child labour: bonded child labour or the work carried out by a child which is the result of the debts of the family. This is considered the worst of all forms of child labour. Parents sell their young children to employers in order to be able to pay back loans they have borrowed. Depending on how big the loans were, these children are made to work for many hours a day for several years. Working as house servants and in the carpet industry is the most common form of bonded child labour.
Situation of Girl Child Labourers – Facts and Figures
There is little documentation on girl child labour, which can also be seen as an evidence of the invisibility of her labour though it contributes so widely to the family, community and the society at large.
Worldwide domestic and household work is very often not seen as work as such. Also, if a girl helps her mother in the household, it is in most parts unrecognized because home-based work is seen as an unskilled nature with low status. Their lack of educational or vocational training, due to the preference given to boys, blocks their ability to move upward. Because she lacks education, she has less possibility on the labour market and is only relegated to low-paid and unskilled jobs. This vicious cycle is hard to break because the exploited young girl becomes the exploited adult woman who often does not see her work as an economic activity but as under-valued.
The fact sheet of the Andhra Pradesh Child Rights Advocacy Foundation (A.P. CRAF) on girl child labour recorded that 246 million children are engaged in child labour worldwide. To say it in other words, one in every six children around the world is doing some kind of work. This number can be broken down into two categories. The first one includes children between the ages of five and fourteen years. 186 million of them are working, often exposed to the worst forms of child labour. 49% of them are girls. Children between the ages of 14 and 18 form the second category and make up 59.2 million child labourers. Out of them, 42% are girls.
The online news channel www.infochangeindia.org gives daily information on news, views, perspectives and debates on the Indian social sector. It also focuses on the nationwide problem of child labour and gives an overview of its figures, which all have a different source and therefore different statistical data. The 1971 census of India reported that 10.7 million children were domestic workers or 4.7% of the total child population and 5.9% of the total labour force. According to the census of the year 1991, India had 11.28 million child labourers, whereas the International Labour Organisation counted 23.2 million working children in the same year. Unofficial sources estimate that there are even 100 million children in India who are working in hazardous conditions. The National Labour Institute indicates that 74.4 million children are neither enrolled in schools nor accounted for as child labourers. Its opinion is that these children are all potential child labourers.9/4/2012 InfoChangeIndia.org
Causes for Girl Child Labour
The situation of the girl child labourer is particularly alarming due to the gender discrimination in large parts of Indian societies. Throughout Indian history there has been a strong sex typing of roles concerning work done by male or female children. This applies to work in the field of agriculture, household, unorganized sector and industries of silk, tobacco, gem polishing, and brassware. The following statement of the author Neera Burra illustrates the sex typing of roles:
[…] when one notices how bindai ka kaam (the piercing of holes in beads) in the gem polishing industry of Jaipur, which was always considered a female job, suddenly becomes a male preserve when the operation becomes mechanized and ultrasonic machines are made available. The process is exactly the same except where women work by hand and earn not more than Rs 4 or 5 a day, men can earn more than Rs 25 a day.Burra 1998, 208
In her conclusion she writes:[…..] whichever industry one looks at, the pattern is repeated – boys go to work in skill-based industries and girls in unskilled low wage work. Wherever mechanization is introduced, leading to higher wages, boys take over the work girls were doing earlier.Burra 1998, 209
What we have here is a deeply rooted issue in the Indian society. In the journey of a girl’s life, marriage is one of the most important moments. In most cases girls leave their natal homes and live with their in-laws. This fact induces parents to value their daughters less than sons, because they will not be of an economical support when the parents become old. This is once again linked to the fact that the probability of girls being sent to school is less likely than boys being sent to school. If a girl child is kept away from an educational process she is likely to be working.
Generally speaking, the reasons for girl child labour can be as true for girls as for boys: family circumstances (illiteracy of the parents, alcohol problems within the family, single parent), rural poverty, migration into the bigger cities, bonded labour, caste and ethnicity, non-implementation of legislature, inadequacies in the school system, profit motive of the industry and the neo-liberal system. The following list gives possible reasons why employers prefer female child labourer to male child labourers:[…] they are seen as more domesticable, timid, compliant, loyal, responsible and stable. […] they do not waste time chatting, nor do they take frequent breaks, as they usually have no addictions or vices. They are able to sit quietly in one place and are more hardworking and obedient than boys. There is thus a tremendous pressure for girls to conform to stereotypical norms of being a ´good girl´. […] The girl child makes huge sacrifices for others on the family keeping aside her own dreams and aspirations.Campaign against Child Labour 2003, 7
The informal sector can also be a home-based industry, which is mainly carried out by girls. Typical home-based works for girls are beedi (thin cigarette) rollingRekha Pande (2003) has written on girl child labourers in the beedi industry at length to which I want to refer the reader to for more information. , carpet waving and handicrafts. Performing these tasks, they are most often under the care and watch of their parents who involve them in their work. The parents are also the ones who receive the wages for the work done. Another typical girl child work is the stitching of perforated panels of leather which will be used for making footballs, but the final stitching of the football will be done by males.
Summarising the significant characteristics of the girl child labourer, they include:
- invisible work which is not recognized as an economic activity and which is not under the purview of law
- no identifiable employer
- home-based work
- long working hours
- poor conditions that prevent them from attending school
- no skill formation
- low pay and low status
- physical abuse and Sexual Harassment Bajpai 2003, 156
Working Areas of Girl Child Labourers in India
As data show, over 80% of child labourers are found in the rural sector, whereas only less than 20% are found in the urban sector. The degree of urbanisation in India is 27,57%.http://www.welt-in-zahlen.de/laenderinformation.phtml?country=80, 8/4/2012 The rural girl child labourer is generally engaged in agriculture and in household activities as compared to a female urban child labourer, who also works in the informal and unorganised sector, which includes small scale cottage industries and factories. The girl child labourer is also found in the domestic work and prostitution, in urban and rural areas.UN System in India: Position Paper on Child Labour, 1998, 20 Generally girl child labourers work in:
- dangerous industries, such as glass making, mining, beedi making and carpet weaving,
- domestic service, which may subject them to physical and sexual abuse, isolation and extremely long working hours,
- the agricultural area, doing heavy work and being exposed to the hazardous conditions of modern machinery and chemicals,
- the streets, working as rack pickers, vendors and as sex workers,
- the export industry of carpets, textiles, clothing and footwear,
- home, which is generally seen as hidden child labour, not obvious to society, and includes taking care of the younger siblings, doing the household and preparing the food
- as bonded labourers, in outright slavery.Bajpai 2003, 148
Although India has ratified and passed various laws to protect the (girl) child labourerPande, 2003, “the issue of Child Rights in India is still caught between legal and policy commitments to children on the one hand, and the fallout of the process of globalisation on the other.”http://infochangeindia.org/children/backgrounder/children-background-a-perspective.html, 9/4/2012
Many non-governmental organisations have committed themselves to eradicate child labour. For example, Navajeevan Bala Bhavan (NJBB), meaning “new life”, an Andhra Pradesh based NGO, does outstanding work for children who live at the margins of society. NJBB engages in giving (girl) child labourers the chance to step out of the vicious cycle of poverty and child labour and encourages them to study or be part of vocational trainings.
Despite all the efforts of NGOs like NJBB a lot has to be done to implement laws and policies against exploitative (girl) child labour, to raise awarness in the society at large and hence to make child labour part of history.
See alsoCentre for Women%27s Studies, University of Hyderabad
Bajpai, Asha, Child Rights in India. Law, Policy, and Practice, Oxford University Press, New Delhi 2003
Burra, Neera, Born to Work. Child Labour in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi 1998
Campaign Against Child Labour (ed.), Girl Child in India, Focus Communications, CACL – Central Secretariat, Mysore 2003
Invernizzi, Antonella, ´Die Arbeit der Kinder ist nicht nur Arbeit´. In: Liebel, Manfred (ed.), Arbeitende Kinder stärken. Plädoyers für einen subjektorientierten Umgang mit Kinderarbeit, IKO – Verlag für Interkulturelle Kommunikation, Frankfurt/Main 1998, 71-88
Liebel, Manfred, et al, (eds.), Kindheit und Arbeit. Wege zum besseren Verständnis arbeitender Kinder in verschiedenen Kulturen und Kontinenten, IKO – Verlag für Interkulturelle Kommunikation, Frankfurt am Main/London 2001
Pande, Rekha, Girl Child Rights and Labour Exploitation in the Beedi Industry. In: Indian Journal of Human Rights, A Journal of the Human Rights Programme (UPE) University of Hyderabad, Volume 7, Numbers 1&2, January – December 2003, 52-73
United Nations System’s Operational Activities for Development in India (ed.), UN System in India: Position Paper on Child Labour, New Delhi 1998
UNICEF (ed.), Beyond Child Labour, Affirming Rights undated
Vijay Times 30/3/2003, ´Defining right and wrong´