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Why Children Labour: A Tangled Interwoven Web

On #WorldDayAgainstChildLabour, we are looking at ground-level data collected by 350 community-based women volunteers using Aangan’s child safety mobile app. Insights from this data provide a window into the circumstances that compels families to send their children to work – of a loan to build a house, an illness or death of an earning member. It’s an opportunity to look at this complex web in its entirely.

This June 12, we think is a good day to have a conversation on why children labour.


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Building Bharosa

Patna police at a trauma informed workshop by Aangan

In our work in communities living with deep deprivation and exposed to everyday violence, we’ve supported families whose children have come to harm — children who have been sexually abused, stalked and harassed, or lured away on the pretext of work and gone missing. For many parents, coping with this ever-present threat of violence has meant forcing their daughter to stay home, drop out of school, isolated ‘for her safety’, or early marriage. We’ve seen that while many families have needed access to the police to seek protection or recourse from harm, fear, or experiences of being turned away in the past have made them reluctant. This has meant that children continue to be harmed. To live with violence or the threat of it.

Yet, when it comes down to it, the police are the first point of contact for almost anyone who needs the protection of the law. That’s where we’d go with families, sitting in police thanas to ensure that an FIR was filed for a missing child, a boy senselessly beaten at work by his maalik (employer), or a girl who had been abused. It was where we’d go when adolescent girls talked about how they are harassed everyday on their way to school, or the public toilet, afraid to tell anyone at home for fear of the repercussions. Despite decades of mistrust and fear of approaching the police, it’s where the journey would begin for a victim or survivor of harm seeking justice and protection.

That’s why we’ve started Bharosa (trust) — a program to build a bridge between the police, women and girls so that there is increased access to protection and safety. So that adolescent girls, their mothers, and families have the confidence to walk into a police station and file a complaint, or to call a police helpline number, ask for help and get a response. To know that action is taken. It’s an initiative to establish a platform for ongoing conversations and joint actions so that women and girls can be safer to live the life they choose.

In the last 10 days, on May 20 and May 28 in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the police made a commitment to build this bridge and establish Bharosa with women and girls. 65 police officers from 16 thanas in Varanasi, and 19 thanas in Patna attended workshops where they made themselves come closer to understanding a child’s experience of harm — the helplessness, terror, fear. Coming together for the first of a year-long series of Bharosa workshops, they were part of discussions and role plays on what is a trauma informed response — understanding what a child has endured, how to have a conversation with sensitivity and why that’s crucial both for the child to begin to feel safe again, as well as for them to be able to do their job well.

Making a commitment to keep girls safe – Bihar Police

Over the next year, these officers will conduct community outreach meetings to talk to families about being alert to early warning signs of child harm and about laws that exist for their protection; they will sit down with adolescent girls and listen and respond to their experiences of danger and safety.

This last week, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar police personnel made a pledge to girls and women — to be close at hand, responsive and accountable.

The author, Deepika Khatri, is the Training and Impact Specialist – Government Partnerships, at Aangan

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In Kalpana’s Words

Kalpana at the CII Women Exemplar Awards in Delhi, 2016

Kalpana Mistry at the CII Women Exemplar Awards in Delhi, 2016

Aangan’s very own Kalpana Mistry has been selected as one of CII Foundation’s Women Exemplars for 2016. She was felicitated today (April 4, 2016)  in New Delhi and received her award from none other than the Finance Minister at CII’s Annual Session.  It’s a great honour and achievement, and we at Aangan are incredibly proud of Kalpana.

Here’s what Kalpana has to say about what this award and her work mean to her.

In Kalpana’s Words

Today I am just so overwhelmed. I feel a whole range of emotions many of which are impossible to describe.

Most overpoweringly, I feel blessed and fortunate that everything I have struggled for, worked for, everything I believe, every hurdle I have crossed, every hardship I have borne has been recognised and acknowledged. Being acknowledged is a very empowering feeling. I did not really know how important it is before today. Like most other people, I have worked my whole life.  I have done what I thought I must, not for any reason other than that I believed it was important. Then suddenly one day Aangan nominated me for this award, and I realised that the people I work with had actually really seen me, had appreciated me, they showed me that I am valued and valuable. It was a very emotional experience. And then finally when a prestigious body like CII has given me this award because they also think that my work has been important – I can only say that it’s a great and humbling feeling!

My work here at Aangan has been a lifetime in the making. As a child I experienced a great deal of hardship and heartbreak myself. My parents had a lot of painful struggles of their own and I was estranged from them at a young age. These are not things I like to dwell on, because they are difficult still, but I do know that they have shaped me and my thinking. Honestly, it’s why I work here, it’s why I do what I do. My own thoughts and experiences make me a strong believer in the work that we do over here because I am able to personally connect with it. My work at Aangan involves keeping children safe, ensuring that young girls understand the risks they face and learn to overcome them, families learn how to make themselves more secure so that they can protect their children from harm. I don’t think that there is any work that is more compelling, more urgent and more satisfying than this. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to do this work. Here, not only have I been able to do work that has been important and rewarding, but here I have also been given the room to grow, to dig deeper into myself, not only to understand more about the children and families we serve, but also to understand more about myself, and to find peace with some of my own troubles.

I believe that a life of dignity is what we all deserve. Today, I have such a life. I work in an organisation that values this. And so now I am able to work to ensure that every child and every family that I work with can also live a life of dignity and meaning. To have the chance to be able to do that is a very special thing.

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Hope. On difficult days, I struggle with that word. To make sense of it when I listen to a 15-year old talk about how he thinks of killing himself so that the sound of the power loom he works at night and day will stop reverberating inside him. When Radha says she has nothing to live for anymore, because at 17, she’s already married, has a child, and been abandoned by her husband and family. When Owais, 13, draws himself up to his full height of four and a half feet and declares he’s a man because men work, and he also goes to work.

It’s moments like this that force me to look at whether change is possible, to question what it even looks like. How do you make impossible choices in desperate circumstances? Keep your head above the water?

The first time I met Shabana was a few months ago at a group meeting of adolescent girls in one of the bastis in which we work. She’s 14. The girls were discussing where they feel unsafe, of the walk to the community toilet, the leering and everyday harassment. They were making plans on how to stay safe.

Shabana sat slightly away from the rest, shoulders hunched, not making eye contact. In the two hours I was there, she didn’t utter a word, poised as if to flee by the door. Her silence was telling. Of wanting to be included but not quite fitting in, watching from the periphery.

It was a silence I recognised. Moving from a small island town to Delhi as an 8-year old, it was a silence I’d adopted. A defence against being the outsider, of wanting acceptance, to be seen and heard.

My colleague who works with the girls said that Shabana was new to the group. Till then, her world had been restricted to her house and the gali she lived in. She’d dropped out of school, caring for four younger siblings while her parents went to work.

In her meetings with my colleague, Shabana spoke of wanting to go back to school, but was terrified of her father, of his rages and beatings when he’d come home drunk. To keep the peace, she acquiesced and assumed the role of chief caregiver.

The next time I met Shabana was a month ago. She had started going to school. Surprised, I asked how she had orchestrated it. She responded: ‘I’m not doing anything wrong, so I stopped being afraid. Now I go to afternoon school and look after my siblings in the morning.’ It was a battle fought with quiet determination. ‘I knew that didi was there. In case I needed help, she’d talk to Abbu for me,’ she said.

Then yesterday, I got a call from my colleague. Shabana had heard her friend Asha’s engagement was being arranged and decided she wouldn’t stand for it. She marshalled nine friends to make a case with the girls’ mother, enlisted adult support and together the group persuaded Asha’s mother to cancel the engagement.

The turn of events was incongruous, the image at odds with the girl I had met a few months ago. What had changed? How was this transformation possible?

When I spoke to her later that day, it was a different Shabana from the girl whose voice was once barely above a whisper. This girl had steel in her spine, in her conviction that there was nothing else to do but stop the engagement. ‘When I first heard, I went home and thought about whether I should do anything. I was frightened. But then I felt that just like I was looking out for her, someone else would be there for me,’ she says.

Something has changed. Not in a dramatic bells-and-whistles way, but viscerally. Perhaps it was being able to go to school again, having friends, adults to talk to who’d speak for her – people she could count on to watch her back and prop her up. Maybe it was gaining courage from hearing her own voice, determinedly fighting to be counted by negotiating with her family.

For me, the magic is bearing witness to these everyday, imperceptible changes. To see that it’s the many small somethings that make children safer.

Of being able to hope.

The author, Deepika Khatri, is the Strategy and Advocacy Coordinator at Aangan, an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work, and violence and abuse, to prevent and protect them from harm.

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It Takes a Village

Last month marked 28 years since my mother died. I was 17, she 43. I am now older than she was when she died, a befuddling thought for some reason.

My childhood had seen its fair share of turbulence and my mother had always been my safe harbor. Needless to say, when she died, the bottom fell out of my world. For about ten years after, the anniversary of her death was unbearable to me. I would spend months dreading it and waiting for it to pass. Then time did that thing it does, and for many years now my ritual has been to spend the day of her death in some sort of mindful reflection. She was that sort of mother, encouraging of reflection, so it’s fitting.

On the anniversary of her death this last December, this is what I thought about.

I thought about the day she died and the months (years) after. I thought about how scared I was, how desperately sad and angry, and how meaningless and unfair life had seemed to me. Some days I felt destructive. Some days I felt hopeless. Many days I didn’t feel at all.

And then in my mind’s eye I saw the army of people – my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, extended family and friends – who miraculously appeared around me, then and ever after, with their outstretched arms, their love, their understanding, their unfailing support. As I flailed and raged and retreated and emerged, went up and down and all around and did all the things that hurting young people do, they stood there, unflinching, that army of my supporters.

I thought about what would have happened to me – with all that rage and pain trapped in that me who was yet to become a full person – if I had been left to figure it all out on my own. If all those people had not stood up and held me when my world fell apart.

In my late 20s I worked in the criminal justice system in California writing the social histories of people accused of committing crimes. I had to hear about and write about the lives of desperate people who did desperate things. In and out of the prisons I would go meeting people who had difficult life experiences that oftentimes led to the recklessness that brought them finally to prison. There was much I learnt about life and myself. Most significantly I learnt how easy it is for a person’s life to get completely derailed. And what a profound difference it makes to one’s experience of life and its vicissitudes (and one’s ability to cope, to endure, to overcome), if at an early enough age one has had the assurance of safety, and of having grown up people – the people in charge – stop in their tracks to listen, to care and to protect. And so every time I walked out of a prison and heard the door clanging shut behind me I would silently mutter a prayer of thanks to the universe for giving me the people it did when I was young and falling to pieces. ‘There,’ I would say to myself, ‘but for the grace of my people, might have been I.’

That’s what every kid needs, no? The security that comes from knowing that there are adults in the world who will go to bat for them? Sometimes parents can’t be there, or can’t be that. Horrible life stuff happens to them and willy-nilly they hurt or abandon or neglect or otherwise fail their children. That’s when some other adult has got to step up to the plate.

But in this day and age as families and communities break up, and people have to migrate and relocate and run helter-skelter in search of livelihood, sustenance, opportunities, leaving behind extended family and support systems, who can those adults be?

To answer that, came this goose-bump giving experience:

This last month at Aangan we witnessed the gathering of close to 400 adult women (and some men) who volunteer in our PACT (Parents and Children Against Trafficking and Harm) program as community child protection workers in six cities where we work. They came to talk about how hard children’s lives can be these days, how hard it is for families to manage in isolation, and how vital and necessary their role is as community protection workers – as supporters and champions of children. They talked about how they have linked needy families to government grants and schemes, how they have enrolled children into foster-care programs, how they have supported children to prevent child marriages, to return to school, to get their mid-day meals, to get out of hazardous work, to be seen and to be heard. These are adults who have difficult enough lives of their own, but who know, deep inside them, that it takes a village to raise a child. And they have decided to become that village – and they have stopped in their tracks, and they have listened, and above all else they have cared and protected the children they see around them.

Kinship and community care – I’m a believer!

The author, Atiya Bose, is the director of Aangan, an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work, and violence and abuse, to prevent and protect them from harm.


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Let’s talk about your Spoilt, Selfish and Slightly Dangerous Son

My child is all sunshine, goodness and hope. She is a girl. Your son on the other hand seems to be heading in a dangerous direction. To confirm this, simply turn on the television, read a newspaper or go to a cinema hall near you, as I did recently. Just before the film, a Mumbai policeman appeared larger-than-life on the multiplex screen to reassure girls that city police would keep them safe. This was very comforting. Then in the second part of this public service advertisement, he spoke to your sons and told them that boys were being watched and warned them that police were on the side of girls. This was rather concerning.

The advertisement was not a new one. But it took on special relevance because at the same time as I was doing an internet search, reading about how the police had diligently done a workshop to get their performance right, I also found a news item about another Mumbai police station involved in some of the worst kind of custodial violence—and it involved a child. A boy had been sexually abused in police custody, but we called this victim an adolescent, a minor, a juvenile. Instead of sparking outrage about a harmed child, the story disappeared under a heap of literature and messaging that single-mindedly assumes all boys to be entitled, pampered oppressors or offenders who need no more attention—unless it’s warnings and harsh punishment.

Not for a moment do I believe that India can afford to pause the conversation on girl safety, nor should any debate impinge on victim/survivor rights. Gender work must and will go on. However, it is worrying when we don’t acknowledge that children come in more than one gender and that boys’ safety is also a pressing issue. Dare I argue then that it is equally dangerous to be growing up a boy in this country where rigid definitions of masculinity could be just as oppressive as limitations for girls? Dare I challenge a Nobel Laureate and suggest that it may not be as preferable to be part of the group Amartya Sen calls the preferred sex. Especially considering son-preference has roots in the understanding that boys are assets with potential to earn and this pushes millions of children out of school and into the work force terribly early. Finally may I respectfully disagree with a popular columnist who recently wrote in a Mumbai paper, “From assault to rudeness, murder to misbehavior—it is all allowed because boys will be boys.” Are boys in India really all that privileged?

Ask parents of nine-year-olds (as I did) why they worry that sons spend more time in the library than on the football field, fight too gently, talk too softly or cry too loud. Ask a boy from the exclusive boarding school about the tradition of orientation rituals featuring physical and sexual violence. Ask the child in the slum who is kicked in the gut every time he comes home without earning enough. Ask the boy with the empty stomach bringing himself up because his parent believes that a thirteen year old can care for himself, or ask the one who works in the garbage dump amidst dog bites, disease, injury and beatings. They might tell you that it is incredibly tough growing up a boy and that failure to live up to expected male roles has brutal consequences. Boys will tell you stories about loss, pain, exploitation, coercion, violence – not all that different from girls. And government statistics will back them. A 2007 government survey found that more boys experience physical abuse than girls and when it comes to working children, 92% of those who face violence are boys. Sexual abuse with boys (as with girls) is reported to be staggeringly high in India at 52%, in fact a little higher than 47% in the case of girls. India also has the highest suicide rate in the world, with young boys and men being highly vulnerable as per the latest WHO report.

But the question is whether we will listen to boys and what they need. At the moment, discussion is narrowly focused on two male roles: Future providers—if boys are a potential labor force then all that counts is that they be prepared and skilled to earn. And their other role: Predators-in-waiting who must be neutralized early before they harm women. Undeniably these are important, but once again the child who experiences deep powerlessness or debilitating pressure is buried under the weight of assumptions and expectations.

And what happens when millions of individuals feel silenced, marginalized or brutalized? When daily reality tells them that it is near impossible to be the strong invincible protectors and providers that they are expected to be. Harvard-based medical anthropologist Kimberly Theidon’s work with child soldiers in the Congo and gangs in Latin America connects the combination of society’s expectation and male powerlessness to the expression of “hyper” masculinity—displays of physical strength, violence and aggression as the most important symbols of maleness to establish maleness, something that sounds familiar in the Indian context. But beyond such research, common sense tells us that that ignoring a whole gender cannot possibly be good for boys, girls or any society.

It will be Children’s Day soon and perhaps this would be the right time to celebrate all kinds of children, to reassert that the boy-child (it is telling that we never call him that) needs attention too, just as the girl-child does. It is urgent that media, parents, policy makers, police and public start a new conversation on boys. And to do this it is crucial that we stop questioning boys’ status as children-not just because it is discriminatory (ironic as that may be) but also because it is dangerous. Because denying boys a childhood excludes them from protection that is in fact the right of every child. As for the police, we are of course grateful that they are active about apprehending male perpetrators. But just as much, we need them to be effective and purposeful when it comes to protecting boys and keeping them safe because at least 50,000 boys go missing each year in this county, and 60% remain untraced. Let’s talk more about protection for boys because all children, regardless of gender have a right to be safe. Every day. Everywhere.

The author, Suparna Gupta, is the founder of Aangan, an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work, violence and abuse. She is an Ashoka fellow and a Ford Mason fellow from Harvard Kennedy School


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Secrets of South Mumbai Schools

There are several whispered stories about Mumbai’s elite schools doing the rounds. In what is considered to be the city’s best school, a talkative six year old is called to the front of the class and scotch tape is pasted on his mouth. In another the teachers of four year olds pace the class with wooden rulers in hand and in still another school, a hearing impaired child is marched to the Principal’s office and emerges with his hair cut off as punishment. Now let’s call this what it really is: Illegal. Corporal punishment is defined by India’s Right to Education Act (Section 17 (1) and (2) as physical and mental harassment and is definitely against the law. It is important to note here that the law envisions schools as safe spaces both physically and emotionally.

Yet the silence around humiliation or inappropriate teacher-student interaction is striking. While we are quick to criticize such punishment techniques in the city’s government run municipal schools, it seems we are more forgiving when it comes to prestigious schools. I have heard parents say, “True, the teacher is very strict, and my child too has been hit by her once. But what a strong academic foundation she provides!” So here is my question: Why is it that parents who can afford every single privilege for their children, do not feel it is their child’s right to have both a great education and a safe environment in school?

Could it possibly be that some of the most influential parent bodies are actually feeling disempowered? Could it be that some school systems intimidate and traditions perpetuate this? I remember the first day of school for my daughter. At the time she was three and a half years old (The school we had chosen is consistently rated one of Mumbai’s Top 5 schools in a survey by a leading newspaper. A survey I now disregard completely!). For hours, hundreds of parents and children stood in silent snaking lines as the Principal barked orders at us. When someone circulated a paper for telephone numbers of fellow parents, the Principal humiliated the parent publicly. That morning as our tiny children were called forward and led away to class in an amazingly prison-like ritual, the beautiful old school building reverberated with one emotion – fear. If that’s how we felt, you can only imagine what our kids were going through.

We stayed quiet and fearful all year long, scared that if we spoke up it would be taken out on our kids in class. I went for a parent teacher conference once and the teacher thought nothing of complaining bitterly to another parent about his child in my presence. Sure, she had good intentions and was concerned, but clearly had no respect for confidentiality. Maybe in her twenty-three years in school, she was never asked to respect the child’s privacy. Maybe it was not part of the school’s child protection policy or more likely there is no such policy at all. While such schools have dozens of rules about acceptable hairstyles, shoe styles and procedures for parents to ask for leave, there is little thought on child protection.

I want to be clear, I am not critiquing the lack of a formal child protection policy document. Rather am questioning why the best schools have not articulated their own philosophy around child protection. A year later when I pulled my daughter out of school I spoke my mind to the Principal and asked whether teachers had ever thought about the harsh environment in the school. She seemed vague, like she had other more important things to worry about. It also seemed that nobody had questioned this aspect of the school and thus she was simply not accountable to parents on this front.

Today as part of my child protection work at non-profit Aangan, we work with parents living in some of the most vulnerable communities across the country to prevent child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work and harm. Based on what I see one thing is clear: Parents who are have systematically been pushed down by burdens of debt bondage, caste systems, feudal hierarchy or gender discrimination can move mountains for their children’s protection –when they feel supported and empowered.

Across the country Aangan is working with groups of the poorest parents who have traditionally felt powerless but have seen things change when they got together and formed child protection groups. A musahar community in Bihar (traditionally the most marginalized dalit group) who would typically be frightened of police is now able to dialogue and make sure missing children reports are filed. Another migrant group in Mumbai worried about high rates of rape and assault have convinced police to patrol the neighborhood at night. A third group in Madhya Pradesh have moved from being too frightened to speak to school authorities about subtle caste based discrimination against their children to getting themselves onto school management committees. In Varanasi, parent groups are working with district authorities to get children out of hazardous work and into school. And the single binding factor to ensuring accountability from government and school authorities across all 39 locations where Aangan runs this parent child protection workers program (called PACT) is just that parents no longer feel isolated.

Perhaps this could serve as a bit of inspiration for parents of Mumbai’s elite schools. If you are thinking about the emotional environment or physical safety in school, you are probably not alone. Getting together, talking about it, supporting each other, prioritizing child protection, negotiating with school authorities – this could be a great place to start. It is just a matter of reminding ourselves that child safety/protection is a basic requirement in school – no less important than academics. Maybe you will get it on to PTA agenda, ask the school to develop a child protection policy, ensure a special teacher training or handbook on the issue, or activate a mechanism by which children feel heard (not a token student committee, but a working one!). There are several possible strategies and it does not have to be an aggressive process of formal complaint letters, lawyers or PILs! Rather starting a proactive dialogue with each other can ensure an environment of safety, free of harsh punishment or humiliation.

I consider myself unbelievably lucky to have found a wonderful school for my daughter. And while the facilities, teacher quality and pedagogy are all to be admired immensely – something else stands out too. In this school, we all feel heard and empowered. Whether it is children, teachers or parents. It is an accepting, open space, which in turn ensures that our children are learning in a safe, protected environment. Now this is not a lot to ask for – in fact it is the basic right of every child. But it takes a sturdy school policy, some deep thinking and huge amounts of commitment from teachers and that is what I love about this school.

Consider asking your school about a child protection policy suggest drafting one or ensure it is articulated in school policy. If it already exists, as parents you have every right to re-visit it, talk about it or tweak it. Do start the conversation in your school because every child has a right to feel safe. Everywhere. Every time.

The author Suparna Gupta is founder, Aangan an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like trafficking, hazardous work, child marriage and serious harm. She is an Ashoka fellow and Ford Foundation Mason fellow from Harvard Kennedy School.

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