After the case of 10-year-old Rameshwari Jadhav being beaten and scalded by her employer came to light, the labour ministry is making efforts to curb the practice of employing children as domestic workers. But not many people are interested in children like 15-year-old R Ragini, an orphan living with her brother and sister, who has been working as a maid in a house in Rajapillai Thottam in T Nagar for 12 years. Ragini dropped out of school when she was in Class III, and can’t even write her own name. If she had been discovered a year ago, legal action could have been taken against her employer for hiring a child in hazardous labour and she could have been rescued and rehabilitated, but now the Child Labour Prevention and Regulation Act (CLPRA) cannot help her since she is over 14 years. An ongoing survey of child domestic workers in the city by two NGOs, Save The Children and Arunodaya Centre for Street and Working Children, shows that there are 35 children being employed in households in Kodambakkam, T Nagar and Choolaimedu, and 22 children in T P Chattram, Anna Nagar and Aminjikarai, many of them between 14 and 18 years. Programme manager of Save The Children in the state Sandhya Krishnan says, “There are weak laws governing the issue. Though child labour has been included as a hazardous form of labour under the CLPRA, it states that only children under 14 cannot be employed in hazardous forms of labour, leaving those aged between 14 and 18 years (who are also children under Article 32 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children) without legal protection.” Many of the children in this age group grow up to become poorly paid unskilled domestic workers. Extra-curricular or recreational activities or learning vocational skills is out of the question. To change this, the NGOs are setting up six contact and activity centres across the city where children can spend an hour or two each day learning vocational training and playing games. There are three centres in the city two in Kodambakkam and one in T P Chattram. It gives children the opportunity to play games and learn vocational skills such as tailoring and beauty techniques. Where such centres are not possible, the organisations are talking to resident welfare associations in apartments to allow them to use parking areas to give the children vocational training. E Mala, who handles the centre in Rangarajapuram in Kodambakkam which caters to 23 children between 15 and 17 years, says, “Children can express themselves, increase their self-esteem and have fun. These are things that they never seem to have time for.” Mala, who started working as a domestic help when she was 10, is now studying second year BA History in Quaid-E-Millet College for Women and wants to become a social worker. Through these centres the NGOs hope to have many success stories like that of Firoza in Kolkata, who successfully completed a six-month beautician course. She has since left her employer and returned to her family in Joynagar, from where she commutes five days a week to Kolkata where she is a practising beautician and to continue her training. Firoza is Ragini’s idol. “I just learnt how to apply mascara. Next week I’m going to learn how to shape eyebrows. Soon I’ll be working just like Firoza akka,” she says.
There’s a glimmer of hope for these kids. They now get a chance to go to school and have a place to chill. School, play and homework should have been their main focus but for Ragini, Gayathri and Nandini, life was just endless drudgery.
The occasional glitch with the sound system could neither keep the stars from shining nor prevent the audience from roaring at the Arunodhaya Youth Day carnival held recently. The carnival, which took place at a jam-packed hall in Royapuram, was organised by the Youth Forum of Arunodhaya, a NGO working among Chennai and Thiruvallur slum communities to uproot child labour and promote children’s rights. Creative performances, running the gamut from traditional Karagam dancing and parai drumming to American-style break-dancing, were followed by speeches by Minister of Fisheries K.P.P. Samy, Arunodhaya executive director Virgil D’Sami, Loyola College Professor Bernard D’Sami and Assistant Commissioner Senthaamarai Kannan. “With the establishment of the Youth Forum one year ago, we wanted to inculcate a sense of responsibility in former child labourers. We want them to take care of their own community,” said Ms. D’Sami. According to 19-year-old Youth Forum member N. Deepan, Arunodhaya’s efforts are paying off. The winning team of a city-wide cricket competition, organised by the Youth Forum, received their prize from the Minister for Fisheries K.P.P. Sami.
As the world celebrates Girl Child Day, data from several sources point out that Tamil Nadu has a long way to go towards uplift of its girls. Child labour, early marriage and abuse, among other issues, continue to hamper the growth of the girl child, data from several NGOs working with children suggest.
The dream seems to be over with the Gulf losing its glitter and allure as a land where money and more money can be made. With the global economic recession kicking in, nearly five lakh skilled and unskilled Indian workers are packing up and leaving the Gulf region.