Up to 10m children suffering as slaves in India

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The Independent Online

Half of the 20 million children believed to be working in India, some as young as six, are illegally employed as domestic servants, where they are subjected to abuse, harassment and even rape and torture. India is slowly waking up to the extent of the abuse but the problem appears to be increasing, welfare organisations have warned.

Half of the 20 million children believed to be working in India, some as young as six, are illegally employed as domestic servants, where they are subjected to abuse, harassment and even rape and torture. India is slowly waking up to the extent of the abuse but the problem appears to be increasing, welfare organisations have warned.

Upwardly mobile young professionals are seen as the chief offenders but there is scant legal recourse for their victims, who find themselves unable to break free from the slavery. Many, it appears, have also been put into prostitution by their employers.

Employers felt free to abuse their staff because the children were effectively prisoners in their homes. The Juvenile Justice Act of 1986, which is meant to protect young people in work, does not cover children under 14 because they are not allowed to be working.

But the advent in India of Childline, arriving in Bombay in 1996 and Delhi two years later, is changing all that. The help line was slow to catch on in Delhi - fewer than 300 calls were received in the first month - one reason being that the most vulnerable children either have no access to telephones, or don't know how to use them.

But the five non-governmental organisations (NGOs) deputed by central government to answer the calls now receive more than 3,000 calls most months. Slowly, often via anonymous informants, the children in direst need are coming to outside notice.

The organisations investigate, dragging the often reluctant and cack-handed police along behind. The tales of suffering are appalling.

A 14-year-old boy, living and working in a smart suburb of south Delhi, was accused by his employer of stealing money, and in punishment was pushed off the home's second floor balcony, sustaining multiple fractures. Nirmala, a 13-year-old housemaid, has scars all over her back from where her employer branded her with an electric immersion rod.

A 14-year-old girl called Pratima was brought to work in Delhi from Assam in north-east India because her mother could not afford to keep her any more. Pratima was told she would receive 100 rupees per month in payment - about £1.50, when even poorly paid Delhi domestics make at least 20 times that much - but she never received even that much, and was sexually abused.

These stories and dozens like them reach the Childline phone lines every year, but the city's Juvenile Welfare Board (JWB), which is responsible for implementing the Juvenile Justice Act, has been sluggish in responding. "When we began taking cases to them they didn't take us seriously," recalls a worker with one of the NGOs involved. "Now there have been some stories in the press and their attitude has improved."

But the approach remains flat-footed and bureaucratic: after Pratima's case was brought to it, the board took three months to locate the address in Assam that she had come from. The NGO involved found it in a week. After that it was another five months before they resolved the case.

Nor are the guilty being rigorously punished. An official of the JWB told The Independent that one child had been paid 100,000 rupees (less than £1,500) compensation by her abusive employer. But the official confirmed that no abusive employer had yet been sent to jail.

The poverty of large swathes of the country provides a great pool of desperate child labour. Biju Sebastian of Don Bosco, one of the NGOs participating in Childline, believes the trafficking is highly organised. "Everyone knows there are gangs working, everyone talks about it," he says, "but we haven't been able to pin them down."

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