by Shelley Seale © 2007
In 2004 a very small-budget independent film called I Am caused 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 ran as a major story in The Age newspaper, and was even featured on the Oprah Winfrey show.
But I Am was no ordinary movie. Besides the fact that it was made entirely by children – directed by Ashikul Islam, filmed by Sahiful Mondal and starring only kids – these young award-winning filmmakers are all residents of a home for destitute boys in Kolkata, India (formerly Calcutta). These boys have all come a long way from their early childhoods.
Sahiful was put into indentured slave labor at the age of four, after his father died of tuberculosis. With their mother suffering from mental illness it fell to this tiny boy and his siblings to somehow put food into their mouths. Sahiful’s first job was agricultural work, crushing hard earth with a brick. The backbreaking work earned him the equivalent of 20 cents per day. Due to the seasonal nature of the work, in the off season he was put to work tending goats from sunrise to sunset. For this he earned two portions of rice per day. When he once lost a goat under his watch, his employer beat him and refused him food for two days.
Today Sahiful’s life is very different. Rescued at the age of six and brought to Muktaneer, which means “Open Sky” in Hindi, his life was freed from exploitation. There 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. He began attending school and his family was also provided assistance.
“Before I lived here, I didn’t study, I didn’t go to school,” Sahiful told me when I visited Muktaneer Home last March. “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. It was my dream to make a movie.”
Sahiful’s background is a common story at Muktaneer, where most of the boys came from slave labor conditions or had been kidnapped and sold. Muktaneer is an initiative of the Centre for Communication and Development (CCD), founded in 1978 to assist vulnerable children. Swapan Mukherjee is the Secretary of CCD, which initially focused on education.
Then in 1995, an explosion in a Kolkata fireworks factory killed 23 children who were working there illegally. The factory employed only children – 1,500 of them, working from 6am to 6 pm for an average weekly wage of 65 rupees, about $1.50. The explosion rocked the entire surrounding area. Trees were uprooted and concrete pillars along with children’s bodies were tossed in the air and landed in a nearby pond.
The factory owners were not fined for employing illegal child labor nor otherwise charged for the deaths or unsafe working conditions. Swapan was outraged. “The factory refused all responsibility for the tragedy,” he tells me, disbelief still in his voice twelve years later. Ultimately, Swapan himself took the factory owners to court and won a judgment for compensation to all the victims’ families. “From there we moved to a focus on child protection and safety,” he recounts.
As the work continued Swapan contacted Amnesty International, Equality Now, and other human rights organizations for assistance. In 2000 the Muktaneer Children’s Home was opened 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. Since that time CCD has been integral in bringing 54 child traffickers before the courts for prosecution and has rescued almost 2,000 children from a horrific array of abusive situations, including mutilation by begging rings to make them more effective at soliciting alms.
As Swapan investigated these incidences and recovered children he was photographing and filming the children’s conditions, their lives and their rescues to have as records for proof and documentation. “The children were fascinated by the camera,” he says. “They wanted to document their own lives, tell their own stories.” And so their dreams, into a new life, were born.
Sahiful’s dreams came true, but another twelve to one hundred million child laborers in India may never get such a chance. Circumstances such as the ones Ashikul was plucked out of, those of child trafficking, indentured servitude, factory labor and the sex trade, comprise an “industry” that huge numbers of children fall victim to, 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.
Child laborers and prostitutes exist in such large numbers for a very simple, yet horrific, reason: they are cheap commodities. 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. They can be paid the least, exploited the most, and due to their largely invisible status have virtually no power against their oppressors.
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 and records are not kept or reported on child workers, it may safely be assumed that this number is extremely low. The official Indian government figure, based on a 1984 Labour of Ministry survey, is 44 million. At the other end of the spectrum Human Rights Watch estimates between 60 and 115 million , and Global March Against Child Labor contends that 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 traditional credit or bank loans exist for those living in poverty. The earnings of the bonded children are less than the interest on these informal 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 unsophisticated parents 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 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. However, the reality is that most of these children are virtually enslaved, abused, and send very little if any money home. Sometimes the family never even sees the child again. A recent study by Save The Children found that most child domestic workers labor up to fifteen hours a day with little break for less than twelve US dollars per month. Fully half of them are given no leave time and 37% never see their families.
Extensive research in the Kolkata area by Save The Children found that 68% of child domestic workers had suffered physical abuse and nearly 90% had been victims of sexual abuse. In 2001 an eleven-year-old domestic worker burst from her master’s home, her little body ablaze, after he set her on fire. A neighbor put the fire out with palm mats and the girl was taken to the hospital, where she later died. A royal couple in another district brought an eight-year-old orphan boy into their palace compound to work; he was later rescued, suffering from malnutrition and extreme injuries from physical torture, including fractures and severe burn wounds. The boy reported to authorities that he slept with the household dogs and was once thrown from the palace roof.
Last year a highly publicized case received tremendous attention when a 10 year old domestic worker in Mumbai was murdered by her affluent employers. The girl, Sonu, was reported as a suicide to police, who arrived at the suburban home to find her body hanging from the ceiling fan. An investigation, however, revealed that Sonu had been beaten and then left to bleed to death by her mistress. Her crime? She had been caught by the employer’s daughter trying on lipstick from the dressing table. When the truth came out it caused an uproar in the media. Sonu became a sort of poster child against domestic child labor and possibly spurred on October 2006 legislation which extended the child labor ban to domestic, hotel and restaurant work.
Om Prakash Gurjar is an inspiring example of a former child slave who is now working himself to affect change for other children. Once a bonded laborer working in the fields to repay his grandfather’s debt, Om Prakash was rescued by activists and taken to live at Bal Ashram, a rehabilitation center for working children. In school the teenage boy quickly rose to first of his class and got involved in cricket and theater arts. Back in his home village Om Prakash single-handedly implemented the Bal Mitra Gram program to make the village child labor free. In 2006 he was honored with the world’s most prestigious award for children – the International Children’s Peace Prize. Om Prakash traveled to Netherlands to receive the award from former South African President F.W. DeKlerk. “I will work to support the families of child labourers,” he says, “so that the children can go to school and enjoy their childhood.
Excerpted from Shelley Seale’s upcoming book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India.