The innocence of childhood coupled with the enchantment of discovering our beautiful world is part of nostalgia associated with growing years for those nestled in material comfort, a luxury which eludes many children growing up to the stark realities of the world.
As per estimates of the International Labour Organization (ILO) 152 million children between 5-17 years around the world account for 15 per cent of the world’s labour force, a figure that is an alarming indicator of childhood nipped in the bud. United Nations ICEF describes child labour as “one of the clearest and worst manifestations of how poverty has a child’s face”.
Girl child labour is widely prevalent but goes unnoticed as there is little documentation of their work, which remains invisible. Confined to low skilled and unregulated sectors, exploited young girls grow up to be 'exploited adults', whose work is largely under-valued.
We have girls working alongside boys in agriculture and as domestic help beside other, unorganised sectors like silk, tobacco, gem polishing and brass industries. The work, done by girls, however, is always considered low value. Author Neera Burra outlines this discrimination lucidly.
“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 mechanisation is introduced leading to higher wages, boys take over the work that girls were doing earlier.”
Lack of scientific surveys and data is a major hindrance in identifying girls working as child labour, but school drop-out rates are often indicators that the education of girls is hampered either by child marriage or due to employment as child labour according to MS Chandra of CARPED (Centre for action, research and social development).
Although the percentage of school drop-outs has come down from 63 per cent to 45 per cent due to enhanced infrastructure like the building of toilets and other measures, it is still a very high number out of which girl children constitute between 25 to 30 per cent.
This figure emerges from research done by CARPED in the various districts of Telangana where it has been working on several social evils including child labour. Says Chandra, “The exploitation of children particularly girls in hazardous works like brick kilns, agricultural operations and as domestic help is even more heartrending when one sees cases of violence and sexual abuse against them, which have been increasing over the years. Many girls working as domestic help are almost like bonded labour as they are paid nominal wages and made to slog without proper working conditions.”
Child labour is an issue that cannot be viewed or tackled in isolation as it only reflects the poor economic conditions of a vast majority that have not been able to rise above the poverty line. The success of government schemes aimed at education and employment can prevent children becoming wage earners at a tender age and bearing the burdens of their families.
However, it is not government initiative alone but the commitment of all institutions and individuals in society that can restore the joys of childhood to a majority of our children. Poverty should no longer have a child’s face.