Tag Archives: India

Interview With Shelley Seale

This morning I had the extreme pleasure of doing a live video interview with Shelley Seale, author of The Weight Of Silence: Invisible Children Of India. Unfortunately we ran into some audio issues and decided not to present her full screen during the session and this resulted in the recording from that conversation only capturing my side of the conversation. Trust me when I tell you that my side of the conversation was NOT the most interesting side!

While this is extremely unfortunate, I’m gives me a reason to schedule another time to do an interview with Shelley.  Next time we will do the video interview in the evening when more people can show up and listen live. In addition,  I’ll use my own recording tools to make sure we get it all.

Shelley, thank you so much for your time this morning and for the wonderful gift that The Weight of Silence is!

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Child Slavery In The Soccer Ball Industry

The international Labor Rights forum is reporting evidence that indicates the use of child labor and debt bondage in the production of soccer balls in India.

“While the sporting goods industry made a commitment to stop child labor in their supply chains when the problem was first identified in Sialkot, Pakistan in 1997, this report shows that bonded child labor continues in the industry and has shifted to India,” said Trina Tocco, Campaigns Coordinator at the International Labor Rights Forum.

via Modern Day Slavery In Soccer Ball Production In india.

This practice was exposed in the 1990’s, but it appears that initiatives to combat these practices are not working. View a photo gallery showing child labor in soccer ball production. The photos appear to be from July, 2007.

View a detailed PDF report from the BBA in India.

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The Railway Children of India

In March 2007 I was in Mumbai, India – a city of great juxtapositions. Home to massive, sprawling slums in which a large portion of its citizens live, Mumbai is India’s tale of two cities. One is on the streets, right up front – the beggars, the pavement dwellers, the street children who pick through litter for anything they can sell. The other India is cocooned behind all this, tucked away from it. This India is one of quiet, air conditioning, service and amenities; middle and upper class people living their lives much as those with means live their lives anywhere. Mostly, these two Indias exist separately, as if each half is unaware of the other’s existence.

And in the middle of it all is an estimated 100,000 homeless children in Mumbai alone. With the second largest rail network in the world carrying eleven million passengers each day, India’s train stations play a major role in street children’s lives. Many of those who run away take a train, often without even knowing where it is headed, and usually remain in the stations where they arrive because of access to toilet facilities and the ability to scratch out a meager existence from industry that springs up around rail travel: as luggage porters, shoe shiners, food or tea servers, rag pickers or beggars.

A boy picks through trash on the tracks

Kids of all ages make their homes in these stations, often begging or picking through trash for a living. Waves of people step over and around them every day without ever really seeing them. As crowds of people disembark from the trains – commuters, businessmen, families, university students, mothers and babies, young trendy urbanites with their iPods – they leave the platforms and swarm to the exits. But some remain behind – the small and permanent residents, the ones for whom the railway station is their only home. Of all the vulnerable children they are the least hidden, in plain sight right on the platforms or outside on the pavement, yet they are perhaps the most invisible of all.

With no supervision of any kind and largely unprotected by adults they are extremely vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation and violence – especially within the first days and weeks of leaving home. On average, 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 twenty minutes. Employers of kids who perform jobs such as rag and bottle collecting keep the children indebted to them. These victimizers know where to find children who won’t be missed.

Me & Gyan with the boys of Kurla Station.

I set off to spend the day with some of these kids one sunny morning. Gyan, a social worker with the NGO Oasis, met me at my hotel to escort me to their Ashadeep project for railway children. Ashadeep offers these children food and a bath, clothing, medical care, recreations such as games and movies, and learning. We took a train to the Kurla station, where the center is located. Exiting the platform, Gyan led the way through a maze I was sure I would never find my way back out of alone, and knocked at the door of a locked room. Another Ashadeep worker let us in. The tiny room was 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 lived 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.

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. I asked Gyan why it is only boys in the program. He said 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, when girls do arrive they are the first to disappear. The sex trade swallows up the girls immediately; every hour four new girls and women enter prostitution – three of them against their will. And once any child is plucked away from the station, they are almost always lost.

Half an hour into my visit the games were put away and a math lesson began. The boys grew serious as they carefully wrote out the numbers and did their sums. The interesting foreigner in their midst was quickly forgotten and they concentrated on their assignment, soaking up the learning like a sponge and eager to show off their skills. I watched these eight, ten, twelve year olds who should be in school every day and thought about children who take their education for granted. It was such a simple right that it should be taken for granted as a right for all children. This was the only schooling these boys had, and it made me very fearful for their futures.

Rashid struggles to write

I noticed one of the boys struggling to write his math problems. His arms were missing below the elbows and he leaned over his notebook on the floor, holding a pencil in his teeth and guiding it with the stub of his left arm. Threads hung from where the sleeves had been cut off the heavily stained shirt. His brown knees were scabby below his shorts; I could see only the top of his head, short black hairs bristling from his scalp, as he bent over his work laboriously. His name was Mohammed Rashid, and he was about twelve years old. He lived at the Kurla station with the other boys part of the time, and sometimes with his family. When he was four or five, Rashid suffered some sort of injury to both his hands – exactly what Gyan either didn’t know or wouldn’t tell me. Such vagueness seemed common for such children who often didn’t know their birthdays or exactly how old they were. An infection set into Rashid’s hands and spread. The desperately poor family lacked the money for a proper operation and medical treatment, so both of his arms were amputated at the elbows.

The caseworkers try to protect these boys as much as possible from the dangers of the station. “These boys lose their right to a childhood, education, and family,” Gyan said as we watched the boys play. “They even lose their humanity.”

Excerpted from Shelley Seale’s upcoming book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India.

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The Price of a Child

Dr. Manjeet Pardesi listened in horror as the young woman related her story. Neela had recently come to his home for children and pregnant women in Rourkela because she had heard it was a place where unwed mothers and their babies would be taken care of without abuse or judgment. The twenty-three year old was pregnant with her landlord’s baby and didn’t know what to do. There was no one to help her.

Neela had been caring for her eight year old brother and ten year old sister in their remote village in Jharkhand state, just north of Orissa, since their parents died several years earlier. Dire financial circumstances caused the small family to owe money to the landlord, who intimidated and coerced the girl into a physical relationship while the young siblings were sent into bonded labor in a rock quarry to pay off the debt. An outreach worker brought Neela to the home for delivery.

“The physical intimacy was not done due to love but due to fear,” Dr. Pardesi wrote me in an email. “In other words, you can term this as rape.”

While this seemed obvious, it was a brave and somewhat controversial statement for Dr. Pardesi to make. Such physical and sexual violence against Dalits, once considered the “untouchables,” is widespread and rarely considered abuse or even a crime at all. In an extensive investigation of caste-based discrimination conducted in 2006, Human Rights Watch found that rape of Dalit women by landlords like what Neela endured is all too common. Dalit victims of rape face significant obstacles when attempting to report the crime to police or to bring a case before the courts. Perpetrators are rarely charged or punished, and their victims are usually the ones ostracized from the community – so much so that rape survivors are often considered unmarriageable.

“Caste is very much the root of the problem,” said Dr. Pardesi. “The government gives them certain privileges, but due to acute poverty and caste dogma these things happen. The people who are Dalits are at the receiving end of exploitation.”

He began bombarding Neela’s landlord with constant communication on behalf of her brother and sister. “Initially he was reluctant to part with the children,” reported Dr. Pardesi, “until he was informed that the matter would be turned over to the police.”

At that point the landlord finally agreed to return the children from bonded servitude in exchange for the money owed him. Dr. Pardesi arranged to collect the children from Calcutta, where they had been put into labor, and bring them back to live at the home with their sister. He paid the price of their debt: Twenty-five U.S. dollars.

Neela’s young brother and sister were freed from their life of bondage, but for most such children freedom never comes.

One out of four children reported missing in India are never found. The strong link between missing persons and slavery indicates an immediate need to find and rescue children who have been reported missing. People trafficking is the fastest growing illegal trade in the world, second only to arms. With an estimated revenue of forty-two billion dollars it is so lucrative that many drug dealers are changing their cargo to human beings.

India represents forty percent of the world’s human trafficking. In 2007 the South Asia Centre for Missing and Exploited Persons was formed precisely for this reason. “Tracing missing children and women across South Asia before they are exploited is emerging as a key focus area in the efforts to prevent human slavery,” wrote Ashley Varghese, Legal Counsel for the organization, in a letter to me.

Pratham, a nonprofit organization that aims to give every child an education by taking schools into the slums and workplaces, has been at the forefront of the fight against child labor. In an interview with me, Farida Lambay of Pratham acknowledged that sometimes children have little choice but to work due to economic reasons; in those cases, when employment is stopped, then rehabilitation and a safety net must be provided to ensure that families and children have the ability to sustain themselves.

But she contended that the financial necessity of child labor as a whole is vastly overstated. “When these children work, the economic situation of most families does not improve at all. We must look at why children are really working.” She outlined the major factors Pratham identified as perpetuating child labor: Lack of opportunity, lack of education, lack of role models and lack of family or other parental support.

“The unemployment in this country is high,” Ms. Lambay continued. “So why are we employing children? Why aren’t their parents in these jobs instead?” She paused, and then answered her own question. “Because the children, they can be hired and exploited much more cheaply. In India we must come to a place where child labor is not acceptable.”

The 2006 Human Rights Watch investigation in India concluded that caste-based discrimination is at the heart of bonded labor and is hugely intertwined with child exploitation. The caste system sustains the mechanisms by which bonded labor thrives, through the centuries-old expectations of free or vastly underpaid work, discrimination and violence against Dalits, and the extreme marginalization that prevents them from accessing resources available to other members of society.

The HRW report stated that these children were forced to dip their hands into boiling water to make the silk thread, handle dead silkworms and breathe fumes that made them ill, and worked in cramped, damp rooms. They did not attend school and were often beaten by their employers or burned with hot tongs if they fell asleep.

When I read this, I had to close the report and set it aside. I felt sick to my stomach. It seemed more than I could bear to think about; but at the same time, I couldn’t bear not to. My mind reeled at how people could do this to other people – especially defenseless children. The work of another journalist, Philip Gourevitch, popped into my mind. In his brilliant book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families about the 1994 Rwanda genocide, Gourevitch wrote of his fascination with the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real. The way that a thing, even as it was happening that very moment in the world around us, could be so horrific that we could still only imagine it, our minds refusing to accept it as reality.

I understood exactly what he meant. In a way, it was far easier to let the vastness of these atrocities slip past my mind that didn’t want to accept them as possible, that became too easily overwhelmed and despairing at the thoughts. But I knew that to do that would be, for me, an unforgivable act. I did know. Now I could only decide if I chose instead to look away. And if I did that, if everyone did that, who would be left stand up for these children?

Gourevitch similarly examined his own pain and difficulty at spending so much time steeped in the genocide. “The best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda’s stories,” he concluded, “is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it.”

Excerpted from Shelley Seale’s upcoming book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India.

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GAP Admits To Child Slavery In Indian Factory

GAP Admits To Child Slavery In Indian FactoryI know many Western readers will shy away from this report.

The Gap just scream “America.” To accept the truth of retailers like Gap’s support of global child slavery would require a change in behavior. And that makes us uncomfortable. We want to believe all is right in the world. All is not right in the world.

Even though the Gap was quick to issue a halt to production in the factory in question and call a meeting to reinforce their “no-tolerance” policy regarding child labor, the actions ring hollow to me. So does their assertion that they were unaware that the clothing was being subcontracted to sweatshops using child labor. “Everyone knows factories in Shahpur Jat use child labor – it’s an open secret,” say Puja Sahu, owner of a fashionable boutique in the are where the sweatshop was found. [Time.com]

The continued quest for cheap labor all but requires that America companies turn a blind eye toward human rights violations. It’s impossible for them NOT to understand what is going on in order to reap such low prices. It’s estimated that more than 2o percent of India’s economy is dependent on children. 20 percent!

So, turn away if it makes you feel better. But the truth is clear. American retailers are funding major child labor violations and enabling child slavery. And none of my words on this screen will make a bit of difference. Corporations only respond to damage to their wallets.

Here are links to others writing on this story.

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