The tale of the girl child in India is one of immense tragedy. Out of the 400 million children (the largest child population in any one country) in India, at least 63 million are out of school, two-thirds of them are girls. Though the Government of India (GOI) claims not more than 11.28 million child laborers, networks like Campaign Against Child Labor say India is home to at least 100 million child laborers. Although separate figures on girl laborers are not available, it is estimated that at least 42 million girls under the age of 18 years are working. The number equals the population of countries like Burma and South Africa.
Recently, from March 5-7, hundreds of girls at a child labor public hearing in Mysore, Karnataka (south India), shared how they lost their childhood. And how cruel socio-economic patterns and government policies crushed their person.
This brings us to an important question: Why does the girl worker, who adorns the covers of GOI reports, continue to be absent from government statistics and policy plans? Undoubtedly, the structural gender inequalities of our society make the girl child very vulnerable. The practice of child marriage is still common in western Indian states like Rajasthan. Even in New Delhi, at least 18 per cent of mothers who live in the slums are between 12 and 14 years old. The country's sex ratio has rapidly declined - from 976 girls per 1000 boys (1961 Census) to 927 girls per 1000 boys in 2001.
Over 45 per cent under-18 girls today are illiterate. Most poor families choose first to send their sons to school while daughters help in chores at home. If the family is slightly better off, the son is sent to a private school while the daughter goes to a government school.
In metropolitan cities, the scare of HIV/AIDS has made men demand very young sex workers. According to a study by NGO Haq, 25 per cent of the sex workers in one of the red light areas of New Delhi are under 18.
In privileged New Delhi homes, 90 per cent of domestic workers are girls under 18. Many are tortured and exploited by their employers or even the police. One estimate indicates that 50 to 60 per cent of the crimes against girls and women in New Delhi involve girls between 2 and 16 years of age.
And realities such as these have been further compounded by globalization. Even government documents have started acknowledging that "globalization, indebtedness, and the widening income gap between the rich and poor countries may also exacerbate the problem of child labor" (India - First Periodic Report 2001, on Convention on the Rights of the Child by GOI).
In South Asia, the income of over a billion people is declining and more than 100 million people are living on the streets. Many of these are young girls. Exit policies of the Structural Adjustment Program are forcing women and girls to replace men in jobs.
In the global culture, profit is God. "The desire to maximize profits, to command an utmost docile and flexible labor force is overpowering," says the same GOI report. The spurt in exports has further victimized the girls - in cotton plantations across India, little girls, almost as high as the plants, work day and night to help manufacturers export cotton and fetch foreign exchange.
The hosiery industry of Tirupur in Tamil Nadu was declared the highest earner of foreign exchange recently - children make up 20 per cent of its labor force. This fact was revealed only when a 13-year-old girl died after being fatally trapped in a weaving machine.
India's best cashew nuts are exported to enhance the inflow of dollars. But 10-year-old Chitra, who shells the nuts (a very smelly and sticky process) for export, was paraded in front of hundreds of other children in the work shed because she dared to eat one cashew nut - out of sheer hunger.
Girls do the most unskilled and the most tedious labor for the market. And given gender inequity, they are the lowest paid. When mechanization arrives, boys tend to take over - as in the gem-polishing industry in Jaipur, Rajasthan and the brassware industry of Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh.
The contractual nature of employment today has heightened the levels of exploitation. The chain of contracting and sub-contracting makes the exploiter invisible. Take the fashion industry: While designs are made in New York and the trainers are based in London, the master cutters are in New Delhi and Manila (Philippines), and the tailors are in the by-lanes of small South Asian cities. And it is little girls in Indian, Thai or Filipino cities, who add the final touches - buttons or strings - to the garments. Payment: five to 10 paise (1Re=100 paise, 1US$=Rs48) for each button they sew.
The link between the commodification of women - crucial to the global consumerist culture - and the extreme exploitation of girls can scarcely be overstated. Men's underwear, motorcycles, tyres - everything is being sold through the obscene portrayal of women.
Market development has led to the growth of transport and the construction of highways. But this has only increased the woes of girls like 14-year-old Savitri, bonded to a dhabawala (highway cafe owner) for Rs 5000. She works with 20 Nepali girls, day and night. Truckers frequent the dhaba often - both for meals and for girls.
Apathy, violence and cruelty are now accepted as "normal" behavior. Our young girls are paying for a 'globalize' India.