India: child brides to child mothers

Article published on Dec. 11, 2006
Article published on Dec. 11, 2006
In its sixtieth anniversary year, UNICEF reports on the children of the dalit and adivasi, the most outcast amongst the pariahs of India

The Indian constitution is a colossus: running to more than 117, 000 words, it is the longest in the world. One of its eight fundamental principles states that ‘minorities, tribal areas, depressed communities and impoverished classes shall be provided adequate living conditions.’ Bearing in mind that all but 70% of the Indian population lives in rural areas, it is not hard to imagine the enormous difficulties the government faces to fulfil this commitment.

Subash Mohapatra once worked for one of the most influential newspapers in India. In 1995, he founded the NGO FFDA (Forum for Fact-Finding Documentation and Advocacy). He is still one of its directors. How and why did he make the move from a comfortable New Delhi office to the daily perils of being a human rights activist in modern India?

It happened one morning when he was recuperating in hospital from malaria. A girl of 12 was lying dead on a stretcher with a baby. When he asked what the sisters had died of, he was told, ‘they’re not sisters; they’re mother and child. They died in childbirth.’ Struck, Subash founded the FFDA a few months later, with the primary aim of denouncing the illegal but accepted practice of child marriage.

Although prohibited by Indian legislation since 1929, such marriages continued to be organised in massive numbers under the patronage of tradition, principally in the poorest of families. Today, 33% of girls in India are married before they reach the age of 15. Another third are already married by eighteen, the legal age limit for marriage. It’s a traditional ritual that affects primarily girls: apart from the fact that they are not physically equipped to give birth, forcing a child between the ages of 11 and 15 to marry condemns her to a life of illiteracy, economic dependency and psychological and physical incapacity.

The ground beneath their feet

For the millions of citizens considered ‘less than human’ by the illegal but omnipresent caste system, the constitution, legislation and law are meaningless irrelevancies - something that you won’t find mentioned in many tourists guides.

The cruellest kind of discrimination flourishes at the expense of the Dalit communities, better known as the ‘Untouchables’. The Dalit are leather workers, bottle cleaners, street sellers; they clean up after the multitude of animals that wander the streets; they are rural peasants without land or home. In some villages, it is prohibited for the shadow of a Dalit to fall across the path of a Brahman (who belong to the highest castes) for fear of contamination. For similar reasons, the Dalit are obliged to sweep the ground where they themselves walk. For them India remains an immense and invisible prison.

Then there are the Adivasi, who make up 8% of the population, concentrated in various indigenous groups whose way of life, farming techniques and religious ceremony have changed little in two thousand years. This social and cultural isolation keeps them on the fringes of society and citizenship, the inferior race. The Indian authorities take their lands, privatise their forests and rivers and expel them from their villages, usually with no kind of compensation, in the name of development. It's a global phenomenon that will always keep them marginalised.

Not alone

The FFDA is equally motivated by cases of Adivasi women and girls who are raped by local leaders, police and spiritual guides. These fall under the type of crimes that no-one dare report. Similarly the Dalit are unjustifiably imprisoned, with neither evidence nor trail, and often for months on end. The ultimate aim? Justice for those who have neither voice nor anyone to turn to.

(Photos: JDR)

Child labour: the basic facts

UNICEF estimates that around 246 million children are involved in child labour. Of these, approximately 171 million work in dangerous conditions.

According to UNICEF (The United Nations Children's Fund, which works for children's rights, their survival, development and protection) however, not all children’s work is negative. It distinguishes between child work and child labour.

Child work

Child work is any participation in economic activity which does not negatively affect a child’s health or development or interfere with their education. Light work is permitted from 12 years old, according to article 138 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention,.

More concretely, children could work at home, or on the family farm or business. Child work is fair as long as their health is not harmed, and they are still able to attend school and enjoy normal childhood activities.

Child labour

This can constitute any activity not respected by the convention. In other words, this means any children below the age of 12 who work, plus those aged 12-14 who are involved in heavy work and any children involved in the worst types of child labour.

UNICEF lists the worst types of child labour as:

EnslavementForced recruitmentProstitutionTraffickingBeing forced into illegal activitiesExposed to hazardous conditions

No way for a children revolution

UNICEF is realistic, realising that for the present it is impossible to eradicate child labour completely. But there are many things which can already be done to improve child labour conditions and create positive child work.

For example, in Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh, India, children who work in the dangerous glass bangle trade are being helped through canvassing, street plays and shows. Children and their parents are informed about the dangers of this work. Children between the ages of 6 and 14 can attend Alternative Learning Centres after work, as a stepping stone to a more formal education. In Nepal, UNICEF and the Norwegian government have set up ‘Bal Bikas Kendras’ - community based child development centres which offer working children 2 hour classes, 6 days a week.

Louise Bongiovanni, London