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In rural India's 'cotton corridor,' UNICEF and IKEA partner to tackle child labour

© UNICEF India/2010/Crouch
Mani, 14 (left), was forced to work in India's cotton fields to pay back a family debt. Two years later, she is safely back in school.

By Diana Coulter

RAICHUR, India, 5 August 2010 – Mani, 14, was beaten when she tried to chat with other children working in the cotton fields. If the children attempted to sing, play a brief game or slowed their work – due to dizziness from pesticide fumes or the intense heat – the landowner would hit them with a tree branch.

“He scolded us with bad words and would strike us on the legs, back and shoulders,” Mani said. But she was powerless. The farmer had loaned her parents 20,000 rupees, or about $430, in return for four years of their daughter’s daily labour.

Abuse of the most vulnerable

At age 12, Mani was forced to leave school. For two years, she stooped silently beside 15 other girls and boys at a farm in the Indian state of Karnataka, caught in a relentless cultivation cycle of cotton in summer, tobacco in fall, chillies in winter and ‘neem’ seed collection in spring.

© UNICEF India/2010/Crouch
A street performance shows the negative effects of child labour. Since 2006, UNICEF and the IKEA Social Initiative have been building public awareness about child labour laws in rural India.

Recently, however, visitors to Mani’s tiny village of Yeragera convinced her parents and employer to send her back to school.

“Finally, I was free and could talk with my friends again,” Mani said.

Her story is like many others in the so-called ‘cotton corridor,’ an area that runs through the poverty-stricken region of Raichur. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of children, mainly girls, work in India’s cotton industry alone. The vast majority of these child workers do not attend school.

In many cases, children are employed because they are paid much less than adults – about $1 per day – and work longer hours. Moreover, they can’t easily complain.

Partnering to raise awareness

Cotton production is painstaking work that requires long hours of cleaning, seeding and hauling water to fields, then standing and individually cross-pollinating each flower by hand before finally plucking every bloom. Often, child workers suffer respiratory and other health problems caused by exposure to pesticides, extreme heat and physical stress. Some are also beaten or sexually abused by employers.

© UNICEF India/2010/Crouch
Mani, 14 (centre), with fellow students at Yeragera Higher Primary School. About 50 children here have returned to classes since a new campaign against child labour began.

Since 2006, UNICEF and the IKEA Social Initiative have partnered to tackle child labour in India by building public awareness about existing laws that forbid it. The country’s child labour law prohibits the hiring of children younger than 14, but enforcement has been difficult since few children understand their rights.

Alongside the Government of India and non-governmental partners, UNICEF has worked to mobilize a new campaign around Raichur, using posters, television and radio campaigns, street performances, public rallies and other awareness-raising activities to reach hundreds of surrounding villages.

Thanks to funding support from the IKEA Social Initiative, experts are hopeful that by 2011 about 15,000 of the estimated 20,000 working children between the ages of 6 and 14 in and around Raichur will be back in school.

Driven by poverty

The region of Raichur, which means ‘pieces of rock,’ is home to large tracts of marginal farm land and many socially excluded tribal and low-caste people. Most live below the poverty line and many are driven by need to send their children to work.

“We have a lot of poverty. That’s why we sent her,” said Mani’s mother, Sundamma. “I don’t want her to work. After the fields, she has red eyes, her hands are sore, and sometimes she vomits and gets dizzy from sun. I do want my daughter in school. She’s happy there.”

At Yeragera Higher Primary School, where Mani now studies, about 50 children have returned to classes since the recent campaign against child labour began.

“We’re very happy because new people have come to help us get children back in school,” said Janhavi Muralidnar, the school’s headmistress. “Before, we would try to talk to families ourselves, but with the rallies, festivals and plays about child labour, people here understand better about children’s rights.”

Mani’s teacher, Archana Srikantamurty, offers remedial studies to those who must catch up on missed subjects. “It’s wonderful having so many fresh, eager faces back in her classroom,” she said. “These are good children who want to learn.”



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