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Fighting Child Labor in Rajasthan, India

Home > Learn More > Stories & News > Fighting Child Labor in Rajasthan, India
By Lynda Perry, Senior Writer, ChildFund International
Posted on 12/5/2016
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A billboard-sized sign along the road from Udaipur through the Aravalli Mountains shows two scenes — one is of a burly man with a bandana around his neck reaching from behind a tree to grab a young girl’s shoulder. She looks away as if to run in the opposite direction. In the other scene, looming shadows of hands grasp for a girl clutching a stuffed bear. The headline in Hindi reads, “Bt cotton has destroyed the childhood of children.” In English below is the familiar logo of ChildFund India, which is campaigning extensively against the practice of child labor here.

By the roadside, girls in school uniforms cluster near a well, scattering as a car approaches and slows. Fear of abduction. Few cars drive through these tribal villages of Rajasthan. Those that do may carry men from the neighboring state of Gujarat who are looking for children to work in the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton fields there.

It happened to Sonu, who was trafficked to work in the cotton fields last season, 190 miles away in Gujarat’s Patan district. She was 12 at the time. Her mother, Nakki, says her daughter worked long hours in the fields, from 4 a.m. to noon each day; then, after a two-hour rest, again from 2 to 4 p.m. For this, she received 120 rupees, about $1.76, a day. There was not enough food, and the owner would scold and beat the children. If children became sick, they received no care. This happened to Sonu, who was sent home on a bus.

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Sonu, now 13, and her friend Meera, 11, remember working in the cotton fields together. They didn’t have enough food or a dry place to sleep when it rained, and the owner pressured them to work fast, to work more. They tried to help each other as they could — if one was too tired, the other would help her finish her work. After Sonu came home sick, Meera finished her two-month stint. Now they are together at home in their village.

Traffickers lure children as young as 5 to work in the cotton fields. Producers of hybrid cottonseed like Bt especially value the tiny hands of small children for the tedious task of cross-pollinating cotton flowers. Far away from their families and communities, the children — many of them girls, considered more patient and diligent in their work — suffer long days in the hot sun and live under poor conditions, often with inadequate food. Beatings, verbal abuse and sexual assault are common.

In this mountainous tribal region, men and women have formed vigilance squads to resist the trafficking of young children. “We are soldiers of the borders,” says Shang, age 40, whose village is along the border of Rajasthan and Gujarat. His group works first to ensure children stay in school, so they become less obvious targets for traffickers. Vigilance squads set up checkpoints to monitor all cars passing through their villages during the busy growing season. Ramesh, a father of five, says his team has rescued 100 children from traffickers in transit to the cotton fields. In these interceptions, they first inform the authorities, and then the villagers themselves take the children home and make sure they enroll in school.

The vigilance squads are organized by ChildFund as part of a multi-pronged approach to reduce child labor. We work to raise awareness among children, parents, schools and the community at large about the dangers of child labor and the value of staying in school as a pathway to future success. Parents and children are taught to resist the temptations of traffickers who ply them with gifts and promises of money. Community workers travel from house to house — uphill and down in this rocky, remote region — to talk to families about child labor, how to protect their children from traffickers, and economic alternatives to sending children off to work. Scholarship programs give bright young people a chance at higher education. Training programs in skills like masonry, tailoring, electrical work and computer repairs give parents and young people viable ways to support themselves and avoid work in the cotton fields. Jampili, a 32-year-old vigilance squad member, was able to triple his earnings by learning masonry skills.

Most of the vigilance squad members were themselves put to work as children. They know firsthand the dangers, the hardships and the regret of sacrificing their schooling. Now they have hope that life can be different for their own children and the children of their villages, children like Sonu and Meera.