Breaking the Cycle of Child Labor in Firozabad

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By Lynda Perry, Staff Writer
Posted on 5/23/2016
woman sitting reaching up shop at store

Chanderavati gained business skills through ChildFund’s entrepreneurial programs. She runs a small shop to supplement the family’s bangle-making business and educate her children.

Sapna’s parents sit cross-legged on thin, woven mats upon the concrete floor of their dimly lit home along one of the many narrow alleyways of Firozabad. Her mother, Chanderavati, has propped her knees off of the floor with bricks. Red powder stains her head, a sign she has visited the temple to honor Shiva on this Hindu festival day of Maha Shivratri. Holiday music drifts from the streets. Curious neighborhood children watch from the doorway.

Chanderavati and Rajesh sit before identical round propane burners, each holding a bundle of bracelet-sized glass rings looped between thumb and forefinger. Barehanded, they turn several of the rings at a time before the leaping flame to soften the glass. They are joining together the rings, cut from coils of glass delivered by cart from the local factories, to form the ubiquitous bangles worn by Indian women from Bollywood to the mountainous tribal villages of Rajasthan.  

Sapna watches her parents. She is 18 and has been sponsored by a ChildFund donor for about a dozen years. This means she’s been involved with ChildFund programs all that time, learning social and leadership skills, joining with others to tackle issues faced by her community — whether linking families to needed social services or convincing local authorities to repair the neighborhood well. It means she’s been exposed to a world beyond bangle making. Yet, like 12-year-old brother Shivam, she helps with the family bangle-making business when she is not in school or studying.

Here in Firozabad, the center of glass bangle making for more than 200 years, child labor is now banned in the factories, where the glass is melted, stretched, wound around cylinders and cut into circles under sweltering, hazardous conditions. But once the glass leaves the factories, in heaps of clear coils carted through crowded streets, children are involved in all stages of forming glass into bangles. In small home-based production centers, all family members typically contribute to finishing the bangles — joining the ends by soldering, shaping the bangles into perfect circles, then coloring, polishing and decorating them.

 girl and boy standing indoors talking

Sapna and her brother, Shivam, help out in the family bangle-making business after school and on holidays. In her first year of college, she’s aiming for a B.S. in commerce — a ticket out of the business of making bangles.

As pretty as bangles may be, the making of them is not. In Sapna’s house, where her family works to join bangles, there are the dangers of open propane containers, fumes and burns. In other houses, where the bangles are glued or sprayed with paint, fumes are worse. Beyond the obvious hazards, the stress of repetitive work takes a toll on the body. It’s hard, tedious and dangerous, and the pay is so small families see little choice but to enlist their children, many of whom don’t even attend school. With no education, children have no choice but to follow their parents’ footsteps and perpetuate a cycle of poverty and ill health.

ChildFund works to change this. Our training center in the heart of the bangle-making neighborhoods of Firozabad teaches young people and their parents the entrepreneurial skills to supplement bangle making with shops, craft-making or other small businesses they identify by their own market research. In this way, families can afford to send their children to school, let them play and study, give them a chance for a brighter future. Young people receive technology training in a computer-filled classroom; there’s a library and sewing center, where tailoring skills are taught. Programs in leadership and social skills are offered. Child and youth groups meet regularly.

woman and man sitting indoors making white bracelets

Chanderavati and her husband, Rajesh, are descended from generations of Firozabad bangle makers. Here, they join together the glass bracelets over propane burners in their home. None of their five children wish to continue the family business. Their parents agree. “It should end with us,” Chanderavati says.

Sapna’s mother, Chanderavati, belongs to a woman’s self-help group, one of 80 such groups initiated by ChildFund’s community organizers in Firozabad and currently running. Each group has its own name and customs and a leader who represents it in the federation of women’s self-help groups. The women learn business skills, encourage and support each other, have fun, and organize around community issues depending on their interests. Like many of the groups, Chanderavati’s group operates a savings club. Each of the 10 members contributes 100 rupees a month, amassing 1,000 rupees altogether. When a member has an emergency, or wants to fund a small business, she can borrow from the group. They run the savings group by strict guidelines and charge fines if someone is late repaying a loan.

Chanderavati has opened her own small business, a shop in the front of her house where she sells snacks, candies and other sundries. The money she earns augments the family income. She is proud that she can send her children to school. “I want them to study, to be educated,” she says.

Sapna, her eldest, completed secondary school last spring. Now she is enrolled in her first year of college. She plans to earn a B.S. in commerce.  She took a course in banking this year and enjoyed it very much. She has dreams for her life bigger than bangle making.

Her parents have been involved in the business since early childhood. Both Chanderavati and Rajesh are descended from generations of bangle makers.  But “our children don’t want to work in this business,” Chanderavati says. Like parents throughout the ages, they want better lives for their children.

“It should end with us,” Chanderavati says.