A lost generation: The grim reality of child labour and exploitation in India
Exacerbated by Covid-19 and India's unemployment crisis, child trafficking remains rampant across India despite many legal protections. This needs urgent attention
Six months ago, state authorities pulled out a group of children, teens and young adults from a bus, heading from a small village near Assam’s Baksa District to Gujarat. When asked, the group shared that they were sent by an agent to take up jobs at fish packing factories. None of them knew their destination, nor had any information about the workplace. Among them, was 17-year-old Purnima* (name changed).
She was one of the seven minor girls of the 31 rescued. Purnima, a school dropout, had faced extreme poverty at an early age. Her sick and old father was finding it difficult to find jobs to feed the family. Therefore, when she heard other teens and younger children were leaving to find jobs, she decided to join them. The other six girls aged between 14-18 years, had similar stories to narrate.
Poverty, loss or incapacitation/illness of parents, lack of social security and social protection for the most vulnerable families in distress, and ignorance about the value of, or limited access to, education are among the myriad reasons for the involvement of children in the workforce. The 2011 census paints a grim picture and records that one in every 11 working individuals in India is a child in the age group of 5-18 years.
Covid-19 and the resultant economic and labour market consequences are having a major impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. In 2018, World Vision India conducted a study with the victims of sex trafficking and found that 78% of the children were trafficked under the pretext of an employment offer, but were then forced into sexual exploitation. The commercial sexual exploitation of children is among the worst forms of child labour and in India, there are around 1.2 million children involved in prostitution. While the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked devastation on India, no one has suffered worse than children.
Child trafficking remains rampant across India despite many legal protections. In 2020, despite the complete nationwide lockdown for nearly four months, 59,262 children (13,566 boys, 45,687 girls, and nine transgender children) were reported missing. The share of missing girl children has increased from about 70% in 2018 to 71% in 2019, and further to 77% in 2020, according to National Crime Records Bureau data. With 48,972 children remaining untraced from the previous years, the total number of missing children has gone up to 108,234.
Child trafficking for labour exploitation is one of the worst and the most invisible forms of human trafficking. The convergence of factors related to child trafficking for labour exploitation not only complicates efforts to criminalise child work, but also hampers attempts to establish adequate and effective preventive measures to curb child trafficking. The fact that around 174 children go missing every day in India, and only half are ever found, is proof enough that current arrangements are inadequate.
The country’s fight against child labour gained momentum with the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children in 1992. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography was ratified on August 16, 2005. The Indian Constitution deals with trafficking under Article 23, Article 39(e) and Article 39(f) to offer comprehensive protection to vulnerable groups, where children are also included.
More than the gaps in the existing laws. The issue is more of enforcement and monitoring of legal provisions along with rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration of victims. Successful prosecution of traffickers to increase the conviction rate will also serve as a deterrent.
Apart from addressing loopholes in the legislation, it is imperative to revisit the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986, to include all occupations and processes that aid and abet the trafficking of children for labour and sexual exploitation up to 18 years of age in the schedule of the act that prohibits employment of children.
The 2016 amendment of the law recognises a "child" as anyone who has not completed 14 years of age and an "adolescent" as anyone who has completed their 14th year, but is below 18 years. This law divides work into hazardous and non-hazardous categories as identified by the Technical Advisory Committee constituted under the Act. While the Act bans all forms of work for children, it only prohibits working adolescent children in hazardous industries.
The new Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, which is still in draft form, has been applauded for strengthening criminal investigation and prosecution processes. However, it lacks clear guidelines on what the rehabilitation of victims must include and who is responsible for providing it. Other relevant elements of the Indian legal framework are the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, and The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (providing all children aged 6 to 14 years with free and compulsory education).
While the country is grappling with the immediate impacts of the pandemic, it is evident that addressing the causes of poverty and inequality is crucial to ending child trafficking for labour in India. Access to education is also vital to breaking the vicious cycle of poverty; especially incentivising secondary school for girls will help them remain in school until they turn 18. A detailed study of child labour and children who dropped out of schools post-Covid will help assess the impact of the pandemic on children. Providing rescued children with education, rehabilitation, and safety is equally imperative to prevent trafficking from reoccurring. As children complete higher levels of education, they are more likely to find formal jobs and can use their income to care for themselves. However, given the complex nature of the problem, there are no simple solutions in a vast country like India.
As we just recently observed World Day Against Child Labour on June 12, let us be reminded that we still have a long way to trace India's lost generation. Our fight against child labour should gain momentum. Every community member and every stakeholder needs to fight to protect the country’s children, for they deserve a dignified childhood. In the long term, this demographic dividend will bolster the nation’s economic and social development.
Joseph Wesley is head of anti-child trafficking programmes and case manager, child and adult beneficiary safeguarding, World Vision India
The views expressed are personal
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