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Op-ed On October 11, The International Day of the Girl Child

Have you heard young Meena’s story? Meena, a 17 year old girl was made to work as a child domestic labourer in Delhi away from her hometown in rural India, until she was rescued earlier this year by an NGO.  Meena was trafficked 3 years ago from Assam to Delhi and sold to a placement agency for domestic helps for a meagre sum of Rs. 22, 000 (~ Eur 893). She was forced to work for a home, perpetually as a slave. Meena was never paid for her services by her employer.  She would often get beaten and receive abuse for trivial matters. Worse still, she was raped by a local vegetable seller.  If you haven’t heard this specific story of Meena, you surely would be familiar with similar stories. You would have seen young girls like Meena, or those younger than her engaged as domestic servants in homes in your neighbourhood or community.    

Meena is one among about 7.5 million girls below the age of 18 years who are engaged in chid domestic labour. In child domestic labour, children, mostly girls (about 70%) are made to work in private homes performing domestic chores that range from cleaning, washing, cooking, running errands in the local market place, taking care of children, the elderly or the pets, and at times going to the extent of helping the employers in their business. In this type of child labour, girls often face economic exploitation, and physical and sexual abuse. Salaries are hardly paid like in Meena’s case. Girls especially those living with their employers have to be on a call almost 24X7 receiving little rest or leisure time. Abuse, verbal and physical is all too common. Girls always have to face the threat of sexual abuse, either by the employers, their families or friends. Many young girls are trapped in domestic servitude due to trafficking for forced labour, wherein trafficking is not limited to an intra-state phenomenon, but also includes cross-border trafficking. For instance, while in India girls have been found to be trafficked from Nepal for domestic work, in West Africa, girls are often trafficked from and to countries like Togo for performing this type of work.

There is enough evidence and research to say that child domestic labour is detrimental to the growth and overall wellbeing of girls as children. Clearly, child domestic labour needs to be tackled, and tackled urgently. The recently concluded III Global Conference on Child Labour held in Brasila, also categorically stated in a semi-plenary on “Child Labour in Domestic Work and Gender Issues” that special attention and priority is required to be placed on this form of child labour. There are several reasons for focussing on child domestic labour. Firstly, with the burgeoning middle class there is an increasing demand to recruit children in domestic homes for cheap labour. The recent statistics indicate an increase in the number of children domestic labour from 10.5 million in 2010 to the present number of 11.5 million. The majority of children in this 11.5 million again will be girls. Secondly, this type of child labour is often hazardous. Longs hours and demanding tasks leave damaging effects on young girls’ tender bodies and abuse and violence effects them mentally and emotionally. At present around 5.8 million girls in the age-group of 5-17 years are in child domestic labour that is of hazardous nature. Thirdly, there are insufficient national provisions to address this issue, especially since child domestic labour takes places in private homes which are beyond the purview of regulations and labour laws. Only about 10 countries have ratified the ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers which deals with child domestic labour, and many places the national list of banned occupations which are hazardous for children omits the inclusion on this type of child labour – Nepal and Pakistan are among them. Lastly, child domestic labour remain invisible not only because it takes place behind closed doors, but also because society both parents of the girls sending them for such work, and the employers hiring them see child domestic labour as acceptable, and not as child exploitation. For parents, this will be a necessary training for girls’ future roles upon marriage, and for employers it will also be a natural solution and option for girls from socially and economically backward backgrounds to reduce the burden of household poverty.          

This year is the second observance of the International Day of the Girl Child (October 11) with the theme being “Innovating for Girls’ Education”. The latest statistics reveal that out of 57 million out-of-school children of primary school age in 2011, the majority, i.e., 31 million children who are missing out on education are girls. While the exact figures remain available, this 31 million is inclusive of millions of girls engaged in child domestic labour. Therefore, in the context of ensuring  and driving more efforts for girls’ education through innovative and other methods, it is important to also place focus on child domestic labour, an invisible and vulnerable category of child labour predominantly involving girls whose not only right to education, but numerous other rights are severely violated. In this respect, it is extremely vital that governments ratify the ILO Convention 189 and include child domestic labour as child exploitation that needs to be eliminated with utmost priority in national laws and policies, and ensure their enforcement and implementation. Increased ratification of Convention 189 by countries for tackling child domestic labour was also a key demand by civil society representatives at the III Global Conference.