Sunday, December 03, 2006

Indian Child Labor: Up Close and Personal

Last night I shared my overnight train compartment with an Indian family. I had the top bunk so I watched and talked to them from there. They were a small family from Trivandrum, Kerala, in South India. The father was an army doctor. I thought it was a young couple and their two daughters, but at sleep time one of the two girls disappeared so I asked where she went. The mom said rather indignantly that she was not her daughter but her maid and apparently she was sent to sleep in a lower class train car while the three in the nuclear family cuddled safely together.

In the morning the maid returned and I got a chance to take a closer look at her. She was only about 10 years old. As soon as I knew she was a maid it made some things more clear. When I had first arrived in the car I had thought, 'wow what a good older sister' because she was watching the little 2 year old so attentively. I noticed that she did not interact with me very much and the little girl really did in a silly way. The maid was much more reserved and there was a darkness behind her eyes. I also thought how it was strange to see such an age difference. Lastly it didn't seem like she was dressed in the same class of clothes as the family (I guess I am beginning to learn and notice things here.)

When she returned I noticed that she was forced to sit separately from the family and watch them spoil the little girl and pay no attention to her. There was definitely a cold imaginary wall.

I just can't help but be disturbed by this. What a horrible way to grow up. To be so young and separated by your family to work for another. To watch "rich" people spoil one child and treat you with cold disregard.

Since I have arrived in India a new anti-child labor law has gone into effect. This one adds domestic and hospitality workers to the existing list of jobs children under 15 are not allowed to be employed in. There has been alot of press about the law and its merits and problems.

One part of me kept thinking that I could turn them in for breaking the child labor law (like our tour guide says he does when he sees child laborers, but I didn't know what to think. Maybe this little girl is supporting a whole family? Maybe the critics are right and at least she is getting fed meals and has a roof over her head? If she lost this job. her parents might find some other work to force her into and that could be alot worse? I have no idea what her situation is and in India one sees some really rough situations.

But then... by working she is missing the possibility of getting educated and being able to improve her lot in life. The caste system and cycle of poverty has a way of playing itself over and over.

There was something really sad about watching it. After the family told me she was a maid I couldn't look at them the same way. I know its the way things are here but its just so different from my reality that I don't know how to relate to it and how to figure out if I have any place to even judge it.

Ahh... India continues to test me!

1 comment:

Vigneswar said...

very moving. I am an Indian living in the US; and I can remember several such incidences around me while growing up. Depriving a kid of education is the worst crime in the world, and somehow the world still seems to live with it. I have fought with my parents several times when the maid servants comes to work at our house, instead of attending school to cover for her mother