By Sana Altaf [from IPSnews.net] India
SRINAGAR, (IPS) – Fourteen-year-old Shafat Ahmad works as a domestic helper in the house of a Srinagar-based government employee in Kashmir. His younger sister embroiders shawls in an unregistered textile venture in her native village of Beeru.
“When my father first brought me here, my employer promised to send me to school,” Shafat told IPS. Though he is keen to pursue his education, he has yet to attend a single class.
The Ahmed siblings’ story is just one among thousands, as increasing numbers of children across the Kashmir Valley become mired in a child labor epidemic that strips them of their childhood and the chance for a decent education.
Kashmir’s handicrafts industry, which has long served as the backbone of the state economy, has recently gained more sinister recognition as one of the state’s leading employers of child laborers.
A prominent sociologist, B.A. Dabla, told IPS that the shawl industry was a particularly ravenous employer of children, especially young girls, whose small hands are useful for the intricate work of shawl making.
‘Alarming levels’ of child laborers
The 2001 census counted 175,000 child laborers in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, though other estimates believe the number is closer to 250,000.
A 2003 research study by the British non-governmental organization Save the Children, entitled ‘Adphail Gulab’ (Unbloomed Roses), found 22,000 child laborers in Kashmir – 19,000 working in carpet manufacturing units in the central district of Budgam and two to three thousand employed in automobile workshops in Srinagar.
“But today, based on our recent observations, those numbers are much higher,” Shareef Ahmad, an official at Save the Children, told IPS.
“We don’t have the most recent numbers yet, though we plan to conduct a fresh survey on child labor, which has recently attained alarming levels (in the region),” he added.
Filmmaker Bilal Ahmad Jan, whose documentary ‘The Lost Childhood’ was recently screened at the Teheran International Short Film Festival, said that in addition to wage labor, the practice of bonded labor is rampant in the outskirts of Kashmir Valley.
“While shooting for my documentary, I came across scores of handicrafts sectors where children work as bonded laborers. Basically, parents take credit from an employer and then force their children to work off the debt,” Bilal Jan told IPS.
He added that the village of Beeru has extraordinarily high rates of bonded labour, considered modern- day slavery.
“In each workshop, I found an average of 90 to 100 children between the ages of seven and 14 years old registered as workers,” he said.
While talking to the children there, Bilal Jan learnt that many worked 12-hour shifts, often without a single day off.
“Many of them would only return home at midnight,” he said, adding that 10 percent of the child laborers he met were affected by the armed conflict in Kashmir.
“Many of the child workers had lost their fathers to the conflict; others were the offspring of deceased militants. In the absence of a traditional family breadwinner, these children were forced to work (in order to) support their families,” the filmmaker said.
Uneducated and impoverished
A 2009 study conducted by the Central Asian studies department at the University of Kashmir found that huge numbers of working children are uneducated or undereducated, a fact that constitutes a grave violation of human rights.
According to the study, nearly 34 percent of child laborers have only received a fifth grade education, while just over 66 percent have only studied up until the eighth grade.
Once they start working, 80 percent of child laborers stop attending school altogether.
Given that 9.2 percent of child laborers are between five and 10 years old, while 90 percent of them are between 11 and 14 years old, these trends foretell a grim picture of an entire generation of impoverished and uneducated youth.
Other studies highlight the immense struggle families face to feed themselves and their young. More than 80 percent of the child workforce comes from families with six to 10 members, with just over 15 percent from families of 11 to 15 members.
Furthermore, over 61 percent of parents of child laborers are illiterate. When questioned about reasons for putting their children to work, most parents cited poverty, acquisition of skills in traditional family arts, lack of quality education and the inaccessibility of schools.
“Poverty is one of the major reasons for child labor in Kashmir. Parents are compelled to send their children to work as they are unable to feed their families,” Urfana Amin, former district resource coordinator for children, told IPS.
However, child workers’ wages are scarcely sufficient to put food on the table.
Over half the working children earn an average of one to five hundred rupees a month. In U.S. dollars, this works out to about 33 cents a day.
Slightly less than 42 percent of working children earn five hundred to one thousand rupees per month, at most 66 cents a day, and just over one percent of child laborers take home more than 1,000 rupees a month.
Urfana also said that most of these children are forced to work in “horrific conditions”.
Dabla, who recently conducted a study on the living conditions of child laborers in Kashmir, said that their surroundings were “filthy, with no proper drinking water or even lavatories”.
He said that many of these children suffer from myopia, migraines and neck problems, as well as being susceptible to a wide range of diseases.
The Save the Children report also claimed that children working in the carpet industry lack basic amenities and work a six-day week. Nearly 80 percent of these laborers suffer from myopia and retinal detachment due to constant eye strain.
Additionally, substantial gender disparities abound in these informal industries. Over 69 percent of child laborers in the handicrafts industry are females, and young girls often face gender-based wage discrimination.
Despite these horrifying details, the government has done very little to curb the issue or enforce existing labor laws.
The state’s social welfare department and department of labor and employment do not even provide basic data on the number of children working in the region.
When asked about the steps being taken to address the issue, deputy labor commissioner M.A. Khan told IPS, “We have prosecuted 50 offenders (child labor employers) in two years, of which one has been fined.” Khan added that the government is doing its part to address reported cases of child labor by conducting surprise raids on handicrafts workshops.