Child labour and slavery – it’s real and it’s big

World Day Against Child Labour is observed on 12 June. Child labour is often defined as work that denies children their childhood, their dignity and their potential, and that is damaging to mental and physical development. Child labour comes in many forms and includes work that is physically, mentally, socially or morally dangerous and/or harmful to children.

Child labour also includes work that interferes with a child’s schooling, either by requiring attendance at school to be combined with excessively heavy and long work, forcing a child to leave school prematurely or depriving a child of the opportunity to attend school in the first place.

Extreme forms of child labour can include children being enslaved, the sale and trafficking of children and debt bondage and compulsory labour, which can lead to the children being separated from their families and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets. Child labour violates human rights.

There are over 14 million people in modern slavery in India, which is equivalent to 40% of the world’s slaves. Of those trapped in slavery, approximately 9 out of 10 are Dalits.

Dalits are a group of people who fall below the caste system and are considered ‘untouchable’. The word ‘Dalit’ literally means ‘crushed, oppressed or broken’, a name they have taken upon themselves as they feel it epitomises their reality. Even though Dalits gained equal status under the law over 60 years ago, there has been little change in their daily lives. They face systemic discrimination and exploitation, and restricted or no access to healthcare, education and justice. Many live in extreme poverty.

There are an estimated 10.1 million children working in India, with the majority of those being Dalit children. More than half are employed in the agriculture sector in areas such as cotton and tea growing, and a quarter in manufacturing. Other occupations which engage child labour include construction work, domestic work, mining and stone quarrying and small-scale industries such as bangle-making, cigarette-rolling and matchbox and lock-making. These industries often use toxic substances and metals, exposing children to myriad health issues.

One particular atrocity within modern slavery is the Jogini system where girls as young as five are dedicated to a temple goddess. The practice is illegal but not uncommon. Once the girl reaches puberty she becomes the ‘property of the village’ to be used sexually by any man, anytime, anywhere. This religiously sanctioned sexual slavery creates a life for a Jogini that is almost unimaginable. Sexually transmitted diseases are common, mental health issues are rampant and dignity is shattered. Daughters of a Jogini have little option than to become a Jogini themselves. Shockingly, it is estimated that more than 80,000 girls and women are Joginis in India.

Many factors contribute to child labour including poverty, lack of access to education and skills training, illiteracy of parents, lack of awareness of the negative effects of child labour, the family’s social and economic circumstances, family indebtedness, high levels of adult unemployment and the cultural values of the family and community. Children are valuable employees as they are cheap, unaware of their rights and unlikely to refuse their employer’s demands.

One quarter of children in the workforce suffer injuries or illnesses while working. This may be because unskilled and labour-intensive jobs are often more hazardous but also due to a lack of training and supervision, as well as a lack of experience. Poverty-related health problems, such as fatigue, malnutrition and anaemia, further increase the risk of work-related hazards.

What can we do to change the huge number of children involved in child labour? While there is no single strategy that will eliminate child labour, areas needing to be addressed include enforcement of anti-child labour laws, reducing poverty and increasing the awareness of the atrocities occurring. There needs to be co-ordinated action between governments, communities, NGOs, media and the wider society.

One key action in preventing child labour is accessible and affordable education. If children are engaged with their schooling, they are less likely to have time to participate in menial jobs. Education gives children the practical skills they need to help themselves out of poverty and exploitation and is one of the most effective weapons in the fight against slavery and child labour.

Kala’s story shows how lives can be transformed through education, advocacy and support. Kala’s parents were Dalits and they worked as manual scavengers, cleaning sewers by hand. Her parents were desperate to earn favour with their god to improve their situation as societal outcasts, so when villagers approached her parents when she was six years old about dedicating her as a Jogini, they agreed.

Thankfully for Kala, a social worker from the Dalit Freedom Network’s Anti Trafficking Unit heard about the upcoming dedication and along with several activists in the village, including some former Joginis, pleaded with Kala’s parents. Her parents stopped the dedication and agreed to send Kala to a place where she could be safe. Kala now lives in the Pratigya Shelter Home for Girls and attends a Good Shepherd School, both run with assistance from the Dalit Freedom Network (DFN). Kala dreams of becoming a teacher, getting married and having a family. What a different life she now leads!

The DFN Australia works through Good Shepherd Ministries. They offer hope and dignity to Dalit communities through education, healthcare, economic empowerment and preventing or freeing people trapped in slavery. Currently DFN’s work involves over 3,000 national staff and 107 schools throughout India, providing over 26,000 Dalit children education with a Christian worldview and access to healthcare. In some areas of India, up to 4 in 10 of their students would likely be in modern slavery if they were not being educated. What a joy it is to bring change and hope to the future generations!

More information about the Dalit Freedom Network Australia on the website.

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Laura Poppleton

Laura Poppleton is the Director Communications for the Dalit Freedom Network.

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