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Old May 1st, 2002, 08:29 AM
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Thumbs down Innocence assaulted: The trauma of child workers

Fourteen-year-old Chitra was found with burn marks all over her body after her employer abused her with heated steel rods. Reshma, 12, had boiling water and hot oil poured over her if she was late for work.

The two girls are among hundreds of Indian children who work as domestic helpers and are ill-treated or even tortured by their employers, social activists say.

"They used to physically abuse me. They poured hot water on my face if I did not wake up in time or poured boiling water on my back and hot oil on my knees and thighs," said Reshma, who now lives in a children's home in Bangalore.

Around 6,000 juveniles in the city, most of them girls aged under 15, are housed in homes run by non-governmental organisations after being rescued from their employers by activists.

One children's helpline in Bangalore receives at least four to five calls each day from young domestic helpers who say they are being abused by their employers. "Of the more than 6,000 calls we received over the last three years about 2,000 of them relate to domestic helpers being in trouble," said S. Padma, who works for the Children's Helpline.

Some children are locked up for days or suffer verbal and physical abuse from their employers, who are often wealthy middle-class families.

Shashikala, 11, the daughter of a labourer, was employed by a couple working for the state-run Karnataka State Finance Corporation to cook, clean the house and wash clothes. "I was beaten and bitten by the woman for not cooking on time or when her children complained about me," she said.

"If I used to cry loudly she used to stuff clothes into my mouth and I was not allowed to go out of the house. I complained to the neighbours about the treatment meted out to me."

After being alerted by one of the neighbours, social activists took Shashikala to a police station to register a complaint and placed her in a children's home.

Eventually the couple was suspended by their firm, but no police action has been taken against them. There is no law which stops people employing children as domestic helpers, although government employees are not allowed to hire children under 14.

But there are no stringent penalties for violating the rule, activists said. "There are instances of girls found dead by hanging in the house of an employer and others dying of burns. Will any girl hang herself or burn herself to death?" said Mathew Philip, Executive Director of the South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring.

"The government must notify domestic child labour as hazardous." He said there were strict rules on employing children in other areas, such as factories, in the Child Labour(Prohibition and Regulation) Act and the Juvenile Justice Act.

The Child Labour Act bars children below the age of 14 from working in "hazardous" industries such as fireworks and glass-manufacturing.

It is not just girls who are victims. One boy, Sridhar, as punishment for stealing sweets had his hands tied and wrapped in a cloth which was doused with kerosene and set alight, activists said.

Lakshapathi Reddy, director of the Association for Promoting Social Action, said most of the children who were domestic helpers were from very poor families. "In the majority of cases there is no money paid to them for their services. They are just given food for their survival," Reddy said.

He said an umbrella organisation, Campaign Against Child Labour, which is made up of more than 300 groups across the country, planned to stage protest marches to highlight the issue.

"The rights of children are in peril and we urge the state to place the best interests of the child as a priority in all its actions," he said.


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