Circuses told to stop employing children

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India's highest court ordered circuses to stop employing children yesterday and instructed the government to rescue and rehabilitate those currently working for the shows.

India's Child Labour Act bans employment of children younger than 14, but circuses were exempt until six months ago when the government amended the law. But circus owners have largely ignored the law, and now the Supreme Court is mandating that it be enforced.

India is home to the greatest number of child labourers despite efforts to address the problem through compulsory education and anti-poverty programmes. Activists say the number working in circuses could be in the thousands. They often perform the most dangerous stunts, including on the trapeze or high wires and frequently without safety nets.

The court ruled on a petition from the Indian group the Save the Childhood Movement, filed in 2006 after the group studied children in circuses and found such employment often led to child trafficking.

The study revealed that children were ill-treated, poorly paid and suffered abuse, including sexual abuse, from circus owners or managers.

"A circus company would change its name and since they move from place to place, parents of children often couldn't trace their children. People were operating child-trafficking rings under the garb of a circus," Bhuvan Ribhu, a lawyer working for the group, said.