Children's rights: Protecting and empowering children in the slums 

Situation and background 

Unfortunately, India is among the countries with the highest number of children who are forced to work. It is estimated that up to 15 million children in India work for money in a variety of sectors. Most likely, the actual figure is considerably higher.

Children work in sweltering heat in quarries and road construction. They work long hours cultivating fields, collecting rubbish in cities. Others are out of sight, working as cheap domestics, in restaurants, hotels or textile sweatshops. All these children live a deplorable life of great hardship. They are physically exploited and deprived of their childhood. Their life expectancy is greatly reduced. Many of these children have no chance to go to school, go hungry and suffer violence, exploitation and mistreatment.

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In recent years, child poverty and child labour in India have been growing at an alarming rate across the entire country, for a variety social, cultural and political reasons. Most at risk are children of families that are casteless or belong to the lower castes. The problem is also a huge one in Uttar Pradesh, the Indian state that includes the sacred city of Varanasi (Benares) on the shores of the Ganges.

In urban areas, children of all ages work in rubbish collection, porters and rickshaw pushers. Their income barely sustains them. Most of these children live on the street, where they are at great risk of mistreatment and abuse without any protection from the state authorities whatsoever.

Children from the rural areas around Varanasi work mainly in brick factories, workshops where copper is extracted from old car batteries in a highly toxic process, or carpet factories. The rights of these children are of course trampled on every day, as the boys and girls have no chance or even a hope to ever escape their desperate situation.

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Poverty leads to more misery.

Poor health: Children often have to share cramped accommodation with other workers. They often sleep on bare ground, with some plastic sheeting as the only protection against the elements. Tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases are rife in these circumstances. Malnutrition, lack of sanitation, poor hygiene, the complete absence of medical care and clean drinking water are of course factors that make their situation even worse.

Debt bondage: Large families with low incomes live from hand to mouth. Every day is a struggle for survival. Many families have become indebted to land owners and are now forced to repay their debts through labour. This bondage is normally passed on from generation to generation. Under these circumstances, they are in no position to even consider education or health care as important. There is now a worrying trend where labourers, especially for brick and carpet factories, are hired by agents who pay them a lump sum in advance, in exchange for free labour over an extended period. As there are so many people desperately looking for work, wages are dropping constantly, and workers are in no position to become organised to improve working conditions. Any existing labour agreements are simply ignored. Workers pay interest on the initial lump sum they have received from their agent. If they are unable to meet these payments, their debts accumulate, so that they are caught in a vicious circle of indebtedness and dependency. In this hopeless situation, children are often forced into bonded labour – a fate that they are unlikely to escape for the rest of their lives.

Lack of education: Children who work are unable to attend school and therefore have no opportunity to acquire even the most basic skills of reading and writing. They are therefore unlikely to ever become skilled labourers. They are trapped in poverty, leaving them with no hope for the future.

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