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Why are so many Indian children forced to work?

As a result of the support we give families, children don't have to work
As a result of the support we give families, children don't have to work

Today in India, 28 million children aged 5-14 years old are engaged in work, meaning that India has the largest number of child labourers in the world. Poverty is one of the key reasons why children go into work and out of the classroom. Child labour has an enduring impact on a young person's future, making it an urgent issue to address.

By supporting parents to develop their skills and find work, SOS Children helps families to have a stable income. This way, children don't have to work, and can enjoy a normal childhood. We also provide educational support to ensure that children at risk stay in school, and have a chance of breaking the poverty cycle.

Sameera's story

Across India parents face the same tough decision that Sameera had to make a few years ago: allow her children to work and miss out on school, or watch the whole family dive deeper into poverty.

Sameera and her five children live in the Chittoor district in the southern Indian state of Andra Pradesh. Like many in the region, agriculture is their main source of income and they grow groundnuts in the dry months, and rice during the rainy season. However, due to a lack of proper irrigation and unpredictable rainfall, crop failure became increasingly common.

A few years ago, with growing financial debts, two of Sameera's daughters dropped out of school to support their family. Due to the social norms in their community, a boy's education is prioritised over a girl’s, so Sameera's son continued to go to school while her daughters missed out on learning. The girls would do any local jobs they could find - domestic help or working in the fields, for example.

Sadly, this pattern is common across India today. Poverty forces children to work and contribute to the family income. Girls are especially at risk of having to work and forgo a normal childhood and education.

Child Labour in India today

Girl with lunch India Puthupetti

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) explains child labour as work which deprives children of childhood, their potential and their dignity, and is harmful to their physical and mental development. However, UNICEF suggests we think of children's work as happening along a continuum. At one end is work as described by ILO - work which is "destructive or exploitive work". At the other end of the spectrum is work that is "beneficial" and promotes or enhances children's development, "without interfering with their schooling, recreation and rest". 

We can see therefore, that there are many different types of child labour - including some which are dangerous and damaging to children. In India, all types of child labour are happening:

  • It is estimated that 28 million children aged between 5 and 14 years old are engaged in work - meaning that India has the largest number of child labourers in the world. 
  • Of these, an estimated 12.6 million children do hazardous work. This includes coal mining, fireworks manufacturing, the diamond industry, and silk manufacturing.
  • Bonded labour is especially exploitative, as the child is forced to work, or is working to pay off a debt. An increased spotlight on these industries means that the worst forms of child labour are gradually reducing.
  • Agriculture is the largest employer of children in India, with estimates ranging between 60-70% of all child labourers engaged in agriculture and related outdoor activities. 
  • Besides this, NGOs estimate that the number of children engaged in domestic work or in restaurants is as high as 20 million.

The proportion of children working is higher in rural areas and varies between India's states. While 32% of children in Gujarat and 20% of children in Rajasthan are reported to be working, only 3% of children in Kerala work. Children are particularly at risk of getting engaged in work if they are from poorer households, if they belong to Scheduled Tribes, and if their parents have little education themselves.

Why is child labour a problem in India?

The story of Sameera's family is just one of millions about why Indian children end up working. Yet it reveals some common factors. Poverty has been identified as the most important factor for high child labour rates. Simply, the priority of a family living in poverty is to survive. Any additional income from a child working gives them a better chance of having enough food and shelter.

SOS School Pune India

Secondly, in many parts of India, children have no real and meaningful alternative to working. When there are a lack of adequate schools and teachers, children don't have many other options except to find work. In rural areas for example, 50% of government funded primary schools do not have a building, 40% lack a blackboard, and few have books. Traditional norms towards education also affects the choice between school and work. Educating girls is often a lower priority in India, which helps to explain why child labour is higher amongst girls - especially domestic work.

As well as the supply side, that is the children who work, it is important to scrutinise the demand side - those who employ the children. Employers may prefer to hire children because they can be paid lower wages than adults, can be dispensed of easily and form a docile, obedient work-force that will not seek to organise itself for protection and support. Another important factor is that the informal economy is growing in India, meaning it is increasingly more attractive for employers to recruit children.

What are the consequences of child labour?

When a child works, they are at risk of having their education interrupted, their health jeopardised, and their physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development stunted. Considering again the spectrum of child labour, those engaged in hazardous occupations are especially at risk.

There is a cost to the individual child labourer who doesn't go to school, remains illiterate, and never develops a basic educational grounding. Without this, it is very hard to acquire new skills later in life. Being confined to low-skilled jobs means that it is extremely difficult to break the poverty cycle. On a wider scale, child labour leads to long-term costs to Indian society. If the next generation are not equipped with an education or necessary skills, then the whole economy will be restricted and innovation limited.  

What happened to Sameera's daughters?

Juan Somavia, Director-General of ILO, states, 

“A world without child labour is possible with the right priorities and policies: quality education, opportunities for young people, decent work for parents, a basic social protection floor for all.” 

Sameera with four of her children

Quality education and decent work for parents are areas that SOS Children actively strives towards across India.

Thanks to the SOS community programme in the Chittoor District, Sameera and her family now have hope for a better future. They received training on organic farming and crop rotation, so that they can cultivate nutritious vegetables. Financial help allowed Sameera to invest in her farm, training on marketing techniques means they now get good prices for their produce, and a new activity of rearing cows generates additional income. After a year of support Sameera was able to earn enough to settle her family’s debts.

With SOS Children’s support, all of Sameera’s children were re-enrolled in school. They were provided with new books, bags, uniforms, study materials and school fees. Sameera’s oldest daughter wanted to learn embroidery, and was enrolled in embroidery classes. Sameera’s children also received educational support, and the whole family was advised on the importance of educating girls and how it was necessary for their own future.

Lives transformed

Sameera's daughters with their new school books

Today Sameera is an active member of a women's self-help group (started by SOS Children) and has attended several workshops on women’s rights, organic farming, gender equality and child rights. Her knowledge and confidence have been boosted, knowing that she can take independent decisions and manage her family’s livelihood. Sameera has transformed her life, her daughters’ lives, and is also helping other women who are in a similar situation to hers. She says, 

“Thanks to SOS Children, my girls are getting educated. I never thought it was possible to educate all four of them. I sincerely hope that they have a good future ahead of then.”

SOS Children runs 32 community programmes across India, helping over 7,000 families to gain financial independence. 8, 584 adults and 16, 244 are helped in this way to have hope for a better future. Your support can ensure a family in the community will be given the tools they need to become financially independent. 

You can sponsor a child for just £20 a month. Through twice-yearly updates, you can see the difference you are making to a vulnerable child's life. If you'd like to find out more, take a look at child sponsorship in India.

Tomorrow in India, every child can have a happy childhood. Sponsor today.