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Child labour in the cotton fields of India

A billboard-sized sign along the road from Udaipur through the Aravalli Mountains shows two scenes – one is of a burly man with a bandana around his neck reaching out from behind a tree to grab a young girl’s shoulder. She looks away as if to run in the opposite direction. In the other scene, looming shadows of hands grasp for a girl clutching a stuffed bear. The headline in Hindi reads: “BT cotton has destroyed the childhood of children.” Below is the familiar logo of ChildFund India, which is campaigning against child labour in this region.

By the roadside, girls in school uniforms cluster near a well, scattering as a car approaches and slows – they have a fear of abduction. Few cars drive through these remote villages of Rajasthan and those that do may carry men from the neighbouring state of Gujarat, who are looking for children to work in the BT (Bacillus Thuringiensis) cotton fields.

Thirteen-year-old Sonu was trafficked to work in the cotton fields last season, 305km away in Gujarat’s Patan district. Her mother, Nakki, says her daughter worked long hours in the fields, from 4.00am to noon each day; then, after a two-hour rest, again from 2.00pm to 4.00pm.

For this work, she received 120 rupees, about US$1.76, a day. There was not enough food, and the owner would scold and beat the children. If the children became sick, they received no care. This happened to Sonu, who fell ill and was sent home on a bus.

Sonu and her friend 11-year-old Meera remember working in the cotton fields together. They didn’t have a dry place to sleep when it rained, and the owner pressured them to work fast; to work more. They tried to help each other as much as they could – if one was too tired, the other would help her finish her work. After Sonu came home sick, Meera finished her two-month stint. Now they are together at home in their village.

Traffickers lure children as young as five years old to work in the cotton fields. Producers of hybrid cottonseed like BT especially value the small hands of children for the tedious task of cross-pollinating cotton flowers. Far away from their families and communities, the children – many of them girls, considered more patient and diligent in their work – suffer long days in the hot sun and live under poor conditions, often with inadequate food. Beatings, verbal abuse and sexual assault are common.

In this mountainous region, men and women have formed vigilance squads to prevent the trafficking of young children. “We are soldiers of the borders,” says 40-year-old Shang, whose village is along the border of Rajasthan and Gujarat. His group works to ensure children stay in school, so they become less obvious targets for traffickers. Vigilance squads set up checkpoints to monitor all cars passing through their villages during the busy growing season. Ramesh, a father of five, says his team has rescued 100 children from traffickers in transit to the cotton fields. In these interceptions, they first inform the authorities, and then the villagers themselves take the children home and make sure they enrol in school.

The vigilance squads are organised by ChildFund India as part of a multi-pronged approach to reduce child labour. ChildFund works to raise awareness among children, parents, schools and the community at large about the dangers of child labour and the value of staying in school as a pathway to future success. Parents and children are taught to resist the temptations of traffickers who give them gifts and promises of money. Community workers travel from house to house to talk to families about child labour, how to protect their children from traffickers, and economic alternatives to sending children off to work.

In addition, ChildFund is providing scholarship programs which give young people a chance at higher education. Training programs in skills like masonry, tailoring, electrical work and computer repairs are also offered to give parents and young people viable ways to support themselves and avoid work in the cotton fields.

Most of the vigilance squad members were themselves put to work as children. They know firsthand the dangers, the hardships and the regret of sacrificing their schooling. Now they have hope that life can be different for their own children and the children of their villages, children like Sonu and Meera.

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