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Radio Europe Interview

On Tuesday, July 1, I was a guest on the Boland show on Radio Europe Mediterraneo, the largest English language radio station in Spain. The producer of the show contacted me after researching child labor in India and coming across my website and book. The twenty-minute interview was a discussion about the various sides of child labor in India and the conflicting issues surrounding how to get children out of the workforce.

Click here to listen to the interview in QuickTime

In other news, during the month of July this blog made it into the Top 100 on WordPress! Each day WordPress rates and lists the top blogs and blog postings. On July 2, my Post “The Girl Who Silenced the U.N. for Five Minutes” was the 59th most popular posting – out of more than 130,000 posts that day!!

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.

Through the Eyes of Children

In 2004, a very small-budget, independent film called “I Am” caught some worldwide buzz. It was awarded Grand Prize at the international Children’s Film Festival in Athens, came to the attention of the Australian press where it was ran as a major story in The Age newspaper, and was even featured on the Oprah Winfrey show.

But “I Am” was not any ordinary independent movie. Not only was the film made entirely by children – directed by Ashikul Islam and filmed by Sahiful Mondal and starring all children – but these young award-winning filmmakers are all residents of a home for destitute boys in Kolkata, India (formerly Calcutta).

Sahiful Mondal with camera

The boys live at the Muktaneer Home, which means “Open Sky” in Hindi. Muktaneer is an initiative of the Centre for Communication and Development (CCD), founded in 1978 to assist vulnerable children, with a focus mainly on education.

Then in 1995, an explosion in a Kolkata fireworks factory killed 23 children who were working there illegally. CCD Secretary, and now surrogate “father” to these boys, Swapan Mukherjee, was outraged – especially after the factory refused responsibility for the tragedy. Ultimately, Swapan took them to court and eventually won a judgment for compensation for all the victims’ families. It was the start of CCD’s move to a child protection focus, and in the 12 years since Swapan has focused on rescuing such children from bonded labor, trafficking, the sex trade, or simply a life on the streets.

Me & Swapan

These situations of child trafficking, indentured servitude, factory labor and the sex trade comprise an “industry” that millions of children in India fall victim to, and which essentially amount to nothing more than slavery, 200 years after legislation was passed which made slavery illegal. And this is slavery at its ugliest, its most evil and heart-breaking core – slavery of the most vulnerable among us: children.

When I visited Kolkata and Muktaneer Home last week, Swapan told me about his start into investigating child trafficking and rescuing as many of these children as he could. In the mid 1990s he was in Delhi, where he found four street children huddled together in tears. He wanted to know what had happened to him. After some time, the children were able to identify the men who had trafficked them to Delhi from their home village. Swapan reported them to the police and then traveled to the children’s village and found their parents. But instead of leaving it at that, simply returning the children to their home, Swapan organized a four-member team and spent six months in that village, the Murshidabad District, doing a door to door household survey to try and find out about missing children. In those six months his team surveyed 1400 households, and from that effort 364 children who had been trafficked were found and returned home.

During his efforts Swapan contacted Amnesty International, Equality Now, and other human rights organizations which assisted him. The Indian government began to take action. In 2000, Swapan opened the Muktaneer Children’s Home so that the children who did not have a home to return to, or whose families were too poor to care for them, would have a place to live. Although Muktaneer is just for boys, CCD also works with other organizations who provide similar homes for girls who have been rescued from indentured servitude or brothels.

As Swapan continued his work investigating child trafficking, he was photographing and filming the children’s conditions, their lives, their rescues, for proof and documentation. The boys who came to live at Muktaneer were fascinated by the camera, and soon told Swapan that they wanted to document and film their own lives, themselves. A movie legend was born.

The boys spy on me while
I watch their newest movie

Sahiful Mondal, who filmed that first movie “I Am” in 2004, is now 13 years old and has filmed or directed three other movies since. Sahiful is very tall for his age, an extremely attractive bright-eyed boy who is full of boundless, optimistic energy and always has a smile on his face. He has traveled to Athens, Cyprus and Melbourne in association with his films. He has come a long way from his early childhood. After his father died of tuberculosis when he was three years old, Sahiful began working in agricultural labor at a very early age due to his mother’s mental illness. The backbreaking work earned him the equivalent of 20 cents per day. Because the agricultural work was seasonal, in the off season Sahiful worked tending goats. He earned two portions of rice per day for this work. One day when he lost a goat under his herding watch, his employer beat him and refused him food for two days.

At age six and a half, Sahiful came to Muktaneer, and today his life is very different. 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.

“Before I lived here, I didn’t study, I didn’t go to school,” Sahiful told me when I met him. “When I came here, I can go to school. I learned about photo and film. Swapan gave me a camera, and I took one photo, and from there I learned all about filmmaking. I love it!”

But it is also a team effort to Sahiful. When I asked him what made him the happiest about all the attention that “I Am,” and the other films, have received, he told me that he enjoyed the attention and people talking to him. But what made him the happiest about it?

“When we got first prize, all the boys here were very happy,” Sahiful replied, a huge grin on his face and his eyes sparkling. It’s definitely one for all here, and the accolades are for them all.

Sahiful wants to be a professional filmmaker when he grows up – and after meeting him and seeing his movies, I have absolutely no doubt that one day you will all see his name at the Cannes or Academy Awards. He is determined, and obviously very passionate about his new-found love of movie-making.

“It was my dream to make a movie,” said Sahiful.

Me, Swapan, & the boys of Muktaneer

For more information about CCD and the Muktaneer Home for Boys, visit their website or email Swapan Mukherjee.

India’s Railway Children

The next day I return from the heady world of the privileged India once again to how the other half lives. Gyan, a social worker with the NGO Oasis, meets me at my hotel to escort me to their Ashadeep project for railway children – kids of all ages who live at the railway stations, often begging or picking through trash for a living, with no families or real adult supervision of any kind, vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation and abuse.

We take a taxi to the huge Victoria train terminal, where it seems millions of people have just got down from the train and are coming straight at us. For 10 minutes we are salmon swimming upstream against an endless flow of humanity until we reach the platform. From Victoria we travel about 20 minutes to the Kurla station, where the Ashadeep project is located. Exiting the platform, Gyan leads the way through an entire community that has sprung up around the station. I would never have known it was even there, but here are lanes and homes and shop stalls, and people cooking and washing their clothes and their babies, everyday life happening in this railway village.

After winding through a maze I’m sure I would never find my way back out of alone, Gyan knocks at a locked door and another Ashadeep worker lets us in. The tiny room is filled with nine boys, ranging in age from about 9 to 16, playing games on the floor with two other male workers. These boys all live at the Kurla railway station by night, sleeping on the platforms, sometimes mere feet from where the trains race by, or on the footpaths or under bridges.

Most are not from Mumbai, but are runaways from towns and villages as much as two or three days journey away, lured by Bollywood and dreams of making it big in Mumbai. It’s a familiar story for an American, where runaways end up in Hollywood or New York for the same reasons, also usually to be preyed upon. According to social work estimates, a child arriving alone at a railway station will be approached by a predator, maybe a factory representative seeking cheap child labor or a brothel owner, within 15 minutes. They know where the children can be found who won’t be missed.

I ask Gyan why it is only boys in the program. He tells me that the majority of railway kids are in fact boys, and this seems to be attributed to two reasons. One, boys are more likely than girls to actually run away from home and leave their villages. Second, for the girls who do arrive, Gyan says they are the first to disappear. The sex trade swallows up the girls immediately. Obviously, some kind of more immediate intervention needs to occur, because once any child is plucked away from the station they are almost always lost. For the girls whom Ashadeep workers do occasionally find in the stations, they refer to another NGO, Saathi, which has a program for girls. The organizations, as well as medical doctors and teachers, all work closely together.

Ashadeep offers the children who end up at Kurla, sleeping on the platforms and ragpicking for pocket money, food and a bath, clothing, medical care, recreations such as games and movies, and learning. Half an hour into my visit the games are put away and a math lesson begins. The boys grow serious as they carefully write out the numbers and do their sums.

Me & Gyan (to my left) with the
boys of Kurla Railway Station.

Ashadeep also offers a caseworker to the children, such as Gyan. The social workers spend much of each work day doing outreach in the train stations, searching for new children and befriending them in a nonthreatening manner, telling them about Ashadeep and the program it offers. They give the children food and offer them baths, clean clothes, and the chance to regularly participate in Ashadeep care. They try to protect the children as much as possible from the dangers of the station. When a child has been coming to Ashadeep regularly and wants to leave the railway life, Ashadeep will contact the family if the boy has one, to try and work with them if possible for reunification. Because many boys fled abusive homes or were forced to leave, this is not always possible. If not, Ashadeep will help him get into a group residential home, boarding school, or rehab center. Drug use, particularly glue sniffing, is a problem for many of these boys without a childhood who often yearn for an escape from the brutality of their lives.

In Hindi, Ashadeep means “Lamp of Hope” – and with an estimated 100,000 homeless children in Mumbai, that’s exactly what it is, at least to these boys at the Kurla railway station.

This post was featured on Global Voices Online – see it here!

PROFILE: Mohammed Rafik

Rafik is one of the rare local Ashadeep children, a Muslim boy with family in Mumbai. Some time ago Rafik suffered an accident or injury to both his hands – exactly what is not known. An infection set in and spread. Because his family is extremely poor and lacking money for a proper operation, rather than treat the injury with adequate medical treatment and surgery, both of Rafik’s hands were amputated.

Rafik lives sometimes at the Kurla station with the other boys, and sometimes with his family, who use his disability by making him beg on the streets. He comes into Ashadeep for food, bathing, and to play games and for education. Gyan says that Rafik is extremely smart and loves to learn; he voraciously eats up anything taught to him or that he can learn.

Rafik would be a perfect candidate for boarding school, if his family can be persuaded to give the permission for him to go. Gyan seems to feel this is unlikely, however, as it will be a loss of income from his begging for the family. “I tell these boys that as long as we are standing with them, no one can raise hands against them any longer,” Gyan says. But still, many are too afraid.

Rafik struggles to write

If you want to read more about Oasis or the Ashadeep Project, please click here to go to their website.