At just 12 years-old, Mani was forced to leave school. For two years, she stooped beside 15 other girls and boys at a farm in the Indian state of Karnataka.
Picking cotton in summer, tobacco in autumn, chillies in winter and neem seed in spring they never stopped.
The farmer had lent her parents 20,000 rupees, or about £270, in return for four years of Mani’s daily work.
She was beaten when she tried to chat to other children working in the cotton fields. If the children slowed down because they were dizzy from pesticide fumes or the heat – the farmer hit them with a branch.
But recently, visitors to Mani’s village turned her life around and persuaded her parents and the farmer to send her back to school.
There are many others who have similar stories. Hundreds of thousands of children, mostly girls, work in India’s so-called ‘cotton corridor,’ an area that runs through the poverty-stricken region of Raichur. Most of them don’t go to school.
Farmers often hire children because they are cheaper than adults –$1 a day or about 60p – and work longer hours.
Processing cotton takes long hours, cleaning, seeding and hauling water to fields, individually cross-pollinating each flower by hand then plucking every bloom. Child cotton workers often suffer breathing and other health problems caused by pesticides. Some of them are also beaten or sexually abused by employers, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, Unicef.
Unicef and the furniture store, Ikea have been working together since to tackle child labour in India by raising awareness about the existing laws that ban it. In India it is illegal to hire children under 14, but because few children know their rights, it is seldom enforced. But with funding from the store, Unicef and the Indian government have started raising awareness across Raichur, with posters, TV and radio campaigns and street shows.
At Yeragera Higher Primary School, where Mani, now 14, is a pupil, about 50 children have gone back to classes since the campaign started.
“We’re very happy because new people have come to help us get children back in school,” Janhavi Muralidnar, the school’s headmistress told Unicef. “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.”
Experts now hope that by 2011 about 15,000 of the estimated 20,000 working children between six and 14 in and around Raichur will be back in school.