Independent Appeal: Children in slavery

Justin Huggler

It is now illegal in India to employ servants younger than 14. But enforcing that law and changing public attitudes to child labour is not proving easy.

Late one night in Madras, a passer-by found two girls huddled together for shelter under a bridge. They had been badly beaten. At first the passer-by thought they had run away from home, but when he questioned them, it turned out their story was more sinister.

They were child domestic servants, sent from their home miles away to work in the house of a rich family in Madras. Their employer had beaten them so badly the two sisters had decided to run away. They knew no one in the city, they didn't even speak the local language. But they were desperate. One was 12 years old, the other 14. When they were taken to hospital later, it was discovered they had severe burns on their legs.

They were lucky. The passer-by who found them took them to Arunodhaya, a non-governmental organisation that rescues child domestic workers, and is the local partner of Anti-Slavery International, one of the charities in The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year. Virgil D'Sami, the woman who runs Arunodhaya, immediately went to the authorities and had the children first taken into care, then reunited with their family.

It was one of the first successes under India's new child labour law. Until the law was passed recently, it was legal to employ children of any age as domestic servants in India. Now anyone employing a servant younger than 14 faces up to a year in prison. Getting the law passed was a victory for Anti-Slavery International which has been campaigning for years to have child domestic labour banned.

Still, the case was not a complete success. Although the two girls were rescued, their employer was well connected, and the case against him was quietly dropped by the police - a sign of the difficulties still facing the campaign against child labour in India.

"It has taken us a long time to overcome perceptions about child domestic servants in India," says Ms D'Sami. "People have traditionally thought that employers are doing these poor children a favour by giving them a job and letting them earn some money. And they tend to think of domestic work as safe for children, as opposed to working in a factory or outdoors. For years, even when we went to government officials this is what they were saying to us."

But working as a domestic servant is far from safe for a child. The story of another girl rescued by Arunodhaya, who can be named only as D, is ample proof of that. Aged just 12, she was repeatedly sexually abused by her employer. "When his wife found out, she didn't take any action against her husband," says Ms D'Sami. "Instead she took it out on the girl. She poured boiling water over her and beat her."

Neighbours heard the girl's cries for help and got her out of the house. She nearly died of her injuries. Today she is well, but badly scarred from the boiling water.

Another girl, Mamimegalai, was not so lucky. Accused of stealing her employers' jewellery, she was beaten to death before anyone could go to her aid. At first, her parents fought for justice for her. But they came under pressure from the rich employer, and eventually dropped the case.

Domestic servants are still widespread in India. Most middle-income households have a cook, and wealthy families employ retinues of five or six servants. Until the new child labour law was passed, the use of children as domestic servants was also widespread.

"When I was growing up, my family had a child servant, and I never thought there was anything wrong with it," says Ms D'Sami. "It wasn't until years later, when I got involved in this work, that I began to see the harm it does."

Even when they are not physically abused by their employers, the effects on their welfare are severe, says Ms D'Sami.

"Aside from the cases of abuse, the worst thing is often that the children are denied an education. They make a few hundred rupees a week - enough to buy food, but nothing else."

Child domestic workers divide into two groups: those who live in their employers' houses, and those who only work there by day and return home at night. Those in the first category are most at risk, and when Arunodhaya hears of cases it steps in to rescue them, alongside the Indian government's official child protection agency.

But non-resident child workers face problems too, and Ms D'Sami and her organisation have been heavily involved in trying to get them out of work and into school.

Archana is in her late teens. When Ms D'Sami first found her, five years ago, she was a domestic worker. She accompanied her mother to clean houses every day, and had no aspirations beyond earning a subsistence living as a servant for the rest of her life. Now, thanks to Arunodhaya, she has completed secondary school and won a place to study for a degree in lab technology at a teaching hospital.

She is just one of the girls - most of the child domestic servants are girls - who have benefited from Arunodhaya's local outreach programme. The charity's workers start by getting the girls to attend evening classes at a local community centre they have set up. It is a humble affair, a simple one-room hut, but it has changed many girls' lives. They stop those who are under 14 from working as domestic servants. The older ones are encouraged to enroll at school.

"Some of the employers are good about it, but some are against us going to school," says Mena, who is 15. "One is always telling me you are wasting your time going to school. She keeps me late at work and I am late for classes and get told off by the teachers."

It is a hard life for the girls, rushing from work to school and back, but they are making a future for themselves. For Sandhya, it is a welcome change from the days when she was made to take her employer's daughter to school, carrying the more privileged child's books for her. "She used to shout at me and call me a servant," says Sandhya. "I told my parents I could not live like that, being called a servant by a younger child."

As always in India, caste is an issue. The child domestic workers almost all come from the lower castes, many of them former Untouchables, while the employers are generally higher caste. For the child servants, this often means they are forced to endure further ignominy.

"The Brahmins are the worst," says Divya, 16. "We aren't even allowed to go through their front doors. If we do, they clean it with oil, because they're afraid we will pollute their caste. If we so much as touch their children they get angry. If we wash a dish, they wash it again after because we've touched it. How are you supposed to work when you can't touch anything?"

Thanks to Virgil D'Sami and Arunodhaya, these girls are now getting an education that means they and their children will no longer have to work as servants for the more privileged. In their simple hut in the Madras suburbs, Arunodhaya's workers are changing Indian society.

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