Monthly Archives: May 2007

Child Labor & Trafficking

“Think occasionally of the suffering of which you
spare yourself the sight.” –Albert Schweitzer

Child trafficking, indentured servitude, factory labor and the sex trade, comprise an “industry” that huge numbers of children fall victim to each year, disappearing into an underground world. The conditions these children are forced into essentially amount to nothing more than slavery, two hundred years after legislation was passed which made the practice illegal. And this is slavery at its ugliest, most evil core, slavery of the most vulnerable among us: children.

Photo courtesy of the United Nations

Child laborers and prostitutes exist in such large numbers for a very simple, yet horrific, reason: they are cheap commodities. They can be paid the least, exploited the most, and due to the largely invisible status of the most vulnerable children, have virtually no power against their oppressors. Children cost less than cattle; a cow or buffalo costs an average 20,000 rupees, but a child can be bought and traded like an animal for 500 to 2,000 rupees.

While factories in China and Central America that exploit children are often in the news, India is the largest example of a country plagued by this human rights abuse, with the highest number of child laborers in the world. Official estimates of these children vary greatly, often by definition of who such children are. The UNICEF website reports 12.6 million children engaged in hazardous occupations, but this figure is according to the official 2001 Census; because more than half of all children born in India are never registered, it may safely be assumed that this number is extremely low. However, UNICEF’s 2006 State of the World’s Children briefing states that an estimated 171 million children, of which 73 million are under ten years old – are working in hazardous conditions, missing out on an education and facing serious risks of injury, illness and death.

Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch

The Global March Against Child Labor says as many as 100 million children are believed to be working, “many under conditions akin to slavery,” with an estimated fifteen million in bonded servitude. Bonded labor or servitude is defined as child labor in which children are indentured in order to pay off a debt. Few sources of credit or bank loans exist for those living in poverty qualify. The earnings of the bonded children are less than the interest on the loans, ensuring that they will typically never be able to pay off the debt. Thus, they become in effect a slave of the “employer.”

Often families themselves place children in such conditions when they feel they have no other choice. Many uneducated parents themselves fall prey to promises by recruiters that their children will do light work, go to school, be exposed to more opportunities in the city, and send money back home. They’re even told that the child will have better marriage possibilities. Living in poor rural villages without many prospects, these families believe the child will have a better future.

In Orissa, a young woman came to the Miracle Foundation home for children and unwed mothers run by Dr. Manjeet Pardesi. She was pregnant with her landlord’s baby, who had intimidated and coerced the girl into a physical relationship. “The physical intimacy was not done due to love but due to fear,” Manjeet wrote me in an email. “In other words, you can term this as rape.” However, once she had been taken into the home and provided care and medical attention, she related the full story. She had been caring for her young brother and sister in their remote village in Jharkhand state, who were still being “held captive” by the landlord and made to do a variety of work for him. Due to their financial circumstances the small family owed money to the landlord and the siblings left behind were working for this debt.

Miracle Foundation staff members Manish, Prabha and Susan – whom I met on my recent trip to India – began a period of constant communication with the landlord on behalf of the children. Manjeet told me that “initially he was reluctant to part with the children,” until he was told that the matter would be reported to the police. Finally, he agreed to return the children from their life of bondage in exchange for the amount of money owed him. Manjeet and the staff went to bring the four-year-old and eight-year-old back to the Miracle Foundation home to live with their elder sister, paying the price of the debt: $25 US dollars.


Missing Face of AIDS featured on InfoChange

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent
about things that matter.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While in India this past March I made a post called “The Missing Face of AIDS,” about the epidemic and its devastating effect on children. A longer, expanded journalistic article from this post has been published by InfoChange India. It is currently a featured story in their current issue on child rights. You can read the story on their website (click here to view).

The article centers on grandparents who are raising their grandchildren orphaned by AIDS, and the way the disease has been impacting children in India. Virtually excluded from the response to the epidemic, children are losing not only their parents but their entire childhoods. Due to the stigma, they are also subject to some of the cruelest forms of discrimination and social ostracization. AIDS is wiping out entire villages in some parts of the country hardest hit, as this article shows.

Read the complete article on InfoChange India

I interview Durgamma in her
home on March 20, 2007

I would like to thank Durgamma and Ramulamma, two grandparents in Vambay Colony outside Vijayawada who shared their stories with me. I would also like to thank Keerthi Bollineni, Dr. Deeksha Pillarisetty, and Abraham Mulurti from VMM (Vasavya Mahila Mandali) for their interviews, time, and information shared with me.

Cherlopalem: Face of the Future

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans
and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is
wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy
name of liberty and democracy?” -Mahatma Gandhi

As I have written in previous posts, the Indian AIDS epidemic is destroying entire families and communities. In “The Missing Face of AIDS” I wrote about Vambay Colony in Andhra Pradesh and the all-too-common legacy AIDS has left there: grandparents supporting their orphaned grandchildren, and the other way around. In “Children Overflowing” I wrote about C.P. Kumar’s Little Hearts home for children who have been orphaned by AIDS.

There are more children living in India today with HIV-positive parents than children already orphaned. If far more drastic action is not taken to halt this catastrophe, the numbers alone tell us that the worst impact on children is yet to come.

The face of India’s future if it fails this battle lies in a small village called Cherlopalem in rural Andhra Pradesh. Not long after I returned home from India at the end of March, C.P. told me about this village that has been the subject of newspaper and television stories. Cherlopalem is home to 30 families of the Dalit or “untouchable” caste, a farming community surrounded by lush green fields that now stand empty. Three-fourths of the residents have been affected by AIDS. Seven people have died within the past eight months and dozens more are in the last stages, leaving many children behind without any sort of supervision.

A woman in newspaper article holds
a photo of her son who died of AIDS.

On April 8 the Eenadu newspaper reported, “The village, known for its hardworking lifestyle, is now ravaged by a cureless malady.” One infected woman who had been shown on a television newscast was so shamed she subsequently stopped eating or taking her medications, and soon died. The article accused officials of doing nothing. The remaining residents confessed that they knew nothing about the “dreaded disease.” They do not know how it transmits or what precautions will protect them.

Cherlopalem is a microcosm of the ability of AIDS to unravel the social fabric of entire communities. It is clear that a failure to address the looming crisis in India will have dire consequences for the country, its children and the world for generations to come. That we can know this and yet do nothing is, as Stephen Lewis of the United Nations put it, “mass murder by complacency.” A childhood cannot wait for the AIDS epidemic to subside, for poverty to be eradicated, for adults and governments to act, for the world to notice them. We wonder why generations before us didn’t speak up as entire peoples were kidnapped from their home countries and enslaved. We ask how the world could have stood by and allowed six million Jews to be exterminated in the Holocaust. How will we answer when our children ask what we did while millions were orphaned by AIDS?


Update: Divine Children’s Home

In mid-March in the southern state of Kerala – a lush, beautiful state known for its commitment to education and nearly 100% literacy rate among both boys and girls – I visited a special place called Divine Children’s Home.

Alice, me, and the children of DCH

Like so many incredible people I have met providing homes to children – Caroline, Papa, Manjeet, C.P. – DCH was started with a chance encounter that changed the course of a life. In 2000, Alice Thomas lost her husband in a car accident. Devastated, Alice struggled to make ends meet and to care for her two children alone. One day her job as a teacher at the local jail took an unexpected turn when a prostitute handed her baby over to Alice. Knowing that the child had no place else to go, Alice took him in.

Soon other people learned about it and began bringing other children to Alice. Once a mother of two, Alice is now mother to 29 children. She calls them “boarding children” because she feels that to call them orphans stigmatizes them. All she wants is for them to have a normal and happy life.

I visited Alice and her beautiful children in their very small home in Trivandrum. Alice and the home’s manager, Paul, explained to me their hopes and plans for building a new home on land that DCH owns – a plan that will allow them to accommodate twice as many children as well as build a library, clinic, kitchen and prayer room. They hope to begin construction in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, the new school session starts in three weeks. As always, Alice tells me that it is extremely difficult to find a way to cover the new expenses for uniforms, shoes, books and school fees. “However, I am sure god will see us through, just like he’s taken care of us till now,” she says.

If you would like to learn more about Divine Children’s Home or send an encouraging email or donation to Alice, please click here.

May 7 is World AIDS Orphans Day

“Children are the living messages we send to a
time we will not see.” –John W. Whitehead

In 2010, there will be at least 100 million orphans and children affected by AIDS. The AIDS pandemic has a devastating effect on the millions of children who are orphaned and/or infected with the virus. In countries most affected, 15-20% of children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. This almost systematic loss of both parents is an unprecedented event in human history.

The purpose of World AIDS Orphans Day is to focus public and media attention on the distress of these vulnerable children and the consequences of their social and economic exclusion.

What can you do? You can Raise Your Voice in support of these invisible children by clicking here.

Go to the website