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A voice for the voiceless

Shantha Sinha, one of the world's most fearless crusaders for children's rights, tells Richard Fitzpatrick what needs to be done to eliminate the curse of child labour exploitation. Published in The Irish Examiner 9 May 2007.

Shantha Sinha, one of the world’s most prominent activists for the elimination of child labour, is in Ireland for two days, culminating in a launch today [Wednesday] of “The Stop Child Labour Kite Flying Campaign”, which encourages schools around the country to build and fly kites in solidarity with child labourers on June 12, World Day Against Child Labour.

Sinha’s story is remarkable. Since founding the Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiah Foundation in 1991, her organisation has helped 375,000 children to move from child labour into education.  The organisation services 1500 villages in the Andhra Pradesh region in Southern India alone, and calls on the service of over a 1000 full-time staff and 86,000 volunteers nationwide.

For her Herculean efforts, Sinha has been awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, and is in Europe to receive the Bauer Publishing Company’s Golden Pen award. She is the first non-European and non-arts person to receive the award.

Last month, she was appointed as chairperson of India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, a new post in which six staff will help her to promote child rights in the country, including the ability to inquire into complaints.

India has one third of the world’s child labourers. It is estimated that there are 250 million children in the six to 14 age group in India. About 80 million of these don’t go to school, according to the 2001 census and 12 million are engaged in child labour.

“Our organisation says we have to consider all 80 million who are not going to school as being in some form of work, not just those in hazardous occupations,” stresses Sinha in her softly spoken but authoritative manner.

“For example, girls who fetch water, collect wood and cook and carry siblings and keep watch of the house. If you include work in agriculture, tending to goats and sheep, and because they are doing this they are being deprived of education. Also, they will soon join the hardcore labour force.”

Sinha believes that there are two issues that contribute to the problem of child labour.

“I think it’s related to the absence of law in society that finds child labour acceptable. It is also reinforced by arguments that they are poor; otherwise, it can be difficult for families to survive. In a way an absence of a norm reinforced by a strong poverty argument warrants work.”

The misconception that children need to work to stave off poverty is only fuelling the problem, as they are taking work from adults. In fact, a recent report by The India Committee of The Netherlands, calculates that children are paid 30% less than adult females and 55% less than adult male wages in the cottonseed farms of Sinha’s native Andhra Pradesh region. It’s a vicious cycle that has to be broken.

It was while working in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad (she is now a professor there) that Sinha became absorbed by the problem of child labour exploitation. It happened in a roundabout fashion.

“I was working in issues of how the labour force could get their entitlements that were promised by government in terms of laws and development programmes. I found we were working against a system of bonded labour. Bonded labour is a system where people place their labour against an advance that they take from the employer. This perpetuates itself because they are forever repaying the interest, and the principle never gets cleared,” she explains.

“We found that 40% of those bonded labourers were children. There were agencies working for adults, they had unions and government resources, but for children that were bonded they were quite clueless.”

It is harrowing to think of what is happening to these bonded children. Sinha is unsparing in her detail.

“For a child working in a brick kiln, they will work 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week during the season, which lasts for three or four months. The child could be 10 years of age, working in scorching heat [40 degrees]. All day, they will balance head-loads of 15 kilos on their heads, as they march up and down the kiln, or they may have to turn hot bricks as they bake. They are unsheltered – there is no protection for them against this heat. They suffer severe headaches.”

Her mission is to get agencies at a global level – the European Commission, UNICEF, the IMF, the ILO – to acknowledge children’s rights to receive a proper education.

She is also keen to charge the imagination of India’s communities on the ground, and to identify with the children in their villages who are being exploited.

“It’s shameful that a child is working, is going to a brick kiln to make bricks,” she remonstrates.