Films and activism by ex-child laborers aim to dent a tragic practice
Former child laborers Ashikul Islam and Sahiful Mondal lived at a home for destitute boys in Calcutta. In 2004, the two 10-year-olds made a short independent film called “I Am,” which created a worldwide stir.
Their film won a Grand Prize at the International Children’s Film Festival in Athens, grabbed the attention of the Australian press, and was even featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
“I Am,” about growing up from the childrens’ point of view, starred only other children.
It was an unlikely turn in the filmmakers’ difficult lives.
Sahiful had been put into indentured slave labor at age 4, after his father died of tuberculosis. With their mother suffering from a mental illness, this tiny boy and his siblings had to figure out how to survive.
Sahiful’s first job was in agricultural work, crushing hard earth with a brick; this backbreaking task earned him the equivalent of 20 cents a day. The job was seasonal, so in the off-season he was put to work tending goats. For this he earned two portions of rice a day. Once, when he lost a goat under his watch, his employer beat him, and refused to feed him for two days.
At age 6 he was rescued, and brought to the orphanage Muktaneer (the word means “Open Sky” in Hindi). He began receiving four good meals a day, was given his own bed, and was allowed to play for the first time in his life. He began attending school. His family was also provided with assistance.
?Before I lived here, I didn’t study, I didn’t go to school, Sahiful told me when I visited Muktaneer in March 2007.
?Since I came here, I can go to school. I learned about photo and film. “[Muktaneer director] Swapan gave me a camera, and I took one photo, and from there I learned all about filmmaking. It was my dream to make a movie.”
The fame of the film brought new attention to the plight of children in bonded labor in India, a few years before the making of “Slumdog Millionaire.”
But it’s hardly made a dent in the problem.
Millions of Child Labor Slaves
Swapan Mukherjee is the secretary of the organization that runs Muktaneer, India’s Centre for Communication and Development (CCD). The CCD was founded in 1978 to assist vulnerable children.
It initially focused on education, but in 1995, after an explosion at a Calcutta fireworks factory killed 23 children working there illegally, it shifted its focus. The factory had employed only children –1,500 of them, who worked from dawn to dusk for an average weekly wage of Rs 65 or about $1.50. The explosion rocked the entire area; trees were uprooted and concrete pillars were tossed into the air, along with children’s bodies.
The factory owners were not fined for employing children illegally. Nor were they charged in the children’s deaths, or for maintaining unsafe working conditions.
Mukherjee was outraged.
?The factory refused all responsibility for the tragedy,” he told me, disbelief still in his voice 12 years after the accident.
Ultimately, Mukherjee himself took the factory owners to court, and won a judgment for compensation for all the victims’ families.
?From there we moved to a focus on child protection and safety,” he said.
Mukherjee contacted Amnesty International, Equality Now and other human rights organizations for assistance, and the Muktaneer Children’s Home opened in 2000. CCD has since helped bring dozens of child traffickers before the courts for prosecution, and has rescued about 2,000 children from a horrific array of abusive situations, including begging networks that mutilated them to make them more effective at soliciting alms.
As Mukherjee investigated these incidents, he also photographed and filmed the children’s working conditions and their lives.
?The children were fascinated by the camera,” he said. ?They wanted to document their own lives, tell their own stories.”
Prostitution and Servitude
Children are forced into servitude and prostitution for one simple reason: they are cheap. A cow or buffalo costs aRs 20,000 (about $430) but a child can be bought and traded for less than a tenth of that sum. They can be paid least, and exploited most; they are basically invisible, and virtually powerless.
While factories in China and Central America that exploit children are often in the news, there are more children labor in India than anywhere else in the world. Official estimates of their number vary greatly, often by definition of who these children are.
Unicef, citing the 2001 census, has said 12.6 million Indian children are engaged in hazardous occupations. But because more than half of all children born in India are never registered, and no records are kept on child workers, it may safely be assumed that this figure is extremely low. The official Indian government figure, based on a 1984 Labor Ministry survey, is 44 million.
At the other end of the spectrum, Human Rights Watch puts the figure at between 60 and 115 million, and Global March Against Child Labour contends that as many as 100 million children work ?under conditions akin to slavery.”
In bonded labor, children are indentured to pay off debts. Few sources of traditional credit or bank loans exist for poor people, and since the earnings of bonded children are less than the interest on informal loans, typically these debts are never paid off. They thereby become de facto slaves to their “employers.”
Often families themselves place children in such conditions, when they feel they have no choice. Many unsophisticated parents fall prey to promises by recruiters that their children will be given light work to do, go to school, be exposed to more opportunities in the city, and send money back home.
One Save The Children study found that most child domestic workers toil for up to 15 hours a day, for less than $12 a month. Half are given no leave at all, and 37% never see their families again. The group’s researh found that 68% of child domestic workers suffered physical abuse, and that nearly 90% had been victims of sexual abuse.
In 2006, there was the highly publicized case of a 10-year-old domestic worker in Mumbai who was murdered by her affluent employers. The death of the girl, Sonu, was reported as a suicide to the police, who arrived at the suburban home to find her body hanging from a ceiling fan. Further investigation revealed that Sonu had been beaten and then left to bleed to death by her mistress. Her crime? She had been caught by the employer’s daughter trying on lipstick at the dressing table.
When the truth emerged, it caused an uproar in the media. Sonu became a sort of poster child against domestic child labor, and helped spur legislation that extended the official child labor ban to domestic, hotel and restaurant work.
A Child Who Helped Others
One young man, after being saved from a life of bonded labor, later led the eradication of the practice in his home village. Om Prakash Gurjar, once a bonded laborer working in the fields to repay his grandfather’s debt, was removed by activists and taken to live at Bal Ashram, a rehabilitation center for working children. As a teenager, he quickly rose to the top of his class, and got involved in cricket and theater.
He then returned to his village, where he helped end child bonded labor. In 2006, he was honored with the International Children’s Peace Prize, the world’s most prestigious award for children. He has since campaigned for a network of “child-friendly villages,” where child labor is prohibited.
?I will work to support the families of child laborers,” he said then, “so that children can go to school and enjoy their childhood.”
See an excerpt from “I Am“
Shelley Seale, a writer based in Austin, Texas, is the author of The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India.
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