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Orissa's child domestic workers: The 'nowhere' children

By Manipadma Jena

In a state where 48% live below the poverty line, and where natural disasters take their toll every year, it is not surprising that the population of child labour has increased by 15%. Many of these children work as domestic workers, abused, burnt and exploited in every way

Terror is stamped permanently on this eight-year-old’s face. “I was forced to sit on a burning stove a month ago. I screamed in pain but no one paid any heed. Once I was thrown from the roof. I lived with the palace dogs and got one meal a day,” says Prashant Nahak from his hospital bed at the MKCG Hospital in Berhampur, Orissa. Crime branch investigations and medical reports both confirm the torture. Besides suffering severe malnutrition, Prashant has over 15 injuries on his body, of which two are severe burn wounds and two fractures.

What’s horrifying is that the people accused of this inhuman torture are the royal couple of Khariar in Nuapada district -- Bhubaneswar and Pushpalata Singhdeo. 

Prashant, an orphan from Sodoka village in Ganjam district (Pushpalata’s village) was brought to the palace to work, on assurances to his grandmother and uncle that he would be treated well. Instead, since last August, he had to put up with serious ill treatment until he was rescued from the Lal Mahal palace in mid-June.

Prashant at least was rescued alive. Mamata was not so lucky. In 2001, her case created a similar uproar. When Mamata was taken to hospital there was not a square inch of unburned skin into which doctors could inject a saline needle. Finally, they put it into her left foot; only her feet were left untouched, stark clean brown against her charred body. Suffering third-degree burns, 11-year-old Mamata had no chance of survival. Through the hours of her ordeal she kept repeating, as if in shocked disbelief: “Babu (master) poured kerosene and put a matchstick on me behind closed doors.”

Just four days before her death, Duryodhan Nahak had approached Mamata’s parents saying he would like her to work at his homestead in Talcher, where his parents, wife and children stayed. Instead, he took her to Rangathali village in Dhenkanal where he lived alone. It turned out he was an anti-social alcoholic.

The day Mamata was burnt, at 10 in the morning, Malli Dehuri, Duryodhan’s neighbour, says she saw the girl leave the house and make her way to the bus terminus. But Duryodhan took her back. At 2 that afternoon, when Malli was feeding the cows, she saw Mamata burst out of the house, her body ablaze, crying, “Help, mausi(aunty), help me, he is killing me!” The older woman wrapped the girl in a palm mattress lying on the ground. But by then Mamata’s thin body was entirely burnt.

Despite cases like these being repeatedly brought to light, little has changed for child domestic workers (DW) in poverty-stricken Orissa. In fact, things seem to have become worse. According to a survey conducted by an Orissa-based NGO, the state has witnessed a 15% increase in child labour in the last five years.

This is hardly surprising. Following the 1999 supercyclone, Orissa experienced an unprecedented drought in 2000. Floods wreaked havoc in the state in 2001, and, the following year, drought made a comeback. In 2003, drought and floods followed one after the other.

With 85% of its population dependent on agriculture, the only livelihood alternative is mass migration to neighbouring states like Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

In Orissa’s poorest districts most households own between 0.5 to 2 acres of land. In a normal two-crop year the harvest is never more than 10 bags of paddy, which are sold at Rs 200 a bag. The family consumes part of the yield, which, once all the debts have been paid off, sustains them for a maximum of three to six months depending on family size. On average, family size ranges between 7 and 9 members.

The worst affected among the migrating poor are scheduled tribe (ST) and scheduled caste (SC) communities which constitute 38.66% of the population. Many have no alternative but to take their children along with them when they move, or leave them with better-off families as domestic servants. A telling indicator is the school dropout rate in Orissa for girls in the elementary level (I-VIII): 72%. For ST girls it is an alarming 78%.

The last survey on child labour by the government of Orissa was conducted 7.5 years ago, in 1997, putting the figure at 2.15 lakh. The figure is unrealistic say NGOs who claim it is nearer 7.30 lakh, based on a 1990 International Labour Organisation (ILO) study. On the basis of Unicef’s definition -- 10-14 years old, not in school and hence child labourers -- it is 13 lakh. According to unofficial sources the figure is 36 lakh. NGO studies claim that 15% of Orissa’s child population within the 5-14 age-group works as child labourers, including those who work on their family’s agricultural land.

Which brings us to what Unicef’s ‘State of the World’s Children 2004’ terms the ‘double jeopardy’ of girl-children. More (most studies put the figure at 60%) girls than boys living below the poverty line are deprived of an education and sent out to work to supplement the family income. Girl child labourers are, to quote the ILO, the ‘nowhere children’: a section of the child population that is neither at school nor reported to be economically active.

Neither official estimates nor policies related to child labour take cognisance of the domestic worker. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1987 does not list as hazardous the employment of children as domestic labour in its list of seven occupations and eight processes prohibited by it.

A large proportion of girl child labourers enter the unorganised sector of domestic work. Girls are seen as natural domestic workers, seemingly trained at home in doing housework. In the absence of official sources of data, rough estimates available from sporadic studies (again, data is difficult to procure from employers of child DWs who often hide the facts) actually limit a realistic assessment of the magnitude and nature of the problem.

However, that there is an overwhelming ‘feminisation’ of domestic work is well established and visible. According to the Shramshakti report (1998), there are 16.8 lakh female domestic workers in the country, as against 6.2 lakh male workers. This finding is reinforced by another study, conducted in the early-1980s, by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, which says females constituted 78% of DWs in a 12-city study. In Orissa, a 1997 study by the department of applied economics of Vani Vihar, Utkal University, reveals a strong preference among employers for girl-children, particularly part-time DWs. Invariably, all research points to the fact that children DWs are preferred, not only because they cost less but are more pliable.

The Utkal University study found that nearly 90% of girl DWs started work before they completed 12 years of age. More than 75% belonged to the age-group 12-14 years. Pre-puberty girls, whilst themselves still unaware of their sexuality, are increasingly becoming targets of sexual abuse. Again, while 70% stepped out to work to supplement the family income, the remaining 30% did so owing to family breakdowns -- either the father had deserted the family, or he was an alcoholic or a drug addict. Or, the mother was living with another man. The Orissa study found that the absence of a supportive family structure made girl DWs more vulnerable.

The study also found instances where mothers had accepted ‘silence money’, following the abuse of their daughters. This is often prompted by a sense of helplessness and ignorance with regard to registering official protests. Also, the fear of stigma arising out of social protest.

Studies reveal one common aspect in the mindset of child DWs -- that their work hours extend to all hours; that they have no legitimate rights. Abuse, even sexual abuse, is accepted as a professional hazard to be endured. The only alternative is to leave the job. To the last one, all child DWs are hesitant to talk about their jobs even after they have left them. They fear they will not only lose their present jobs but will be ‘branded’ by the local employer community.

A study by Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) in 2001 on child DWs in Orissa found that lack of regular income by the head of the family -- mostly daily-wage earners or small cultivators, and fathers addicted to liquor -- was a major reason for the incidence of child domestic labour. Intense poverty in backward areas where alternative avenues for earning are non-existent is widely acknowledged as being responsible for the practice of child DWs.

Ranjan Mohanty, the national convenor for CACL in Orissa, says that it is very difficult to get authentic data on sexual abuse of DWs. He says: “More than 90% of girl-children engaged in domestic work are exploited through different forms of sexual harassment by their employers, or by their cousins or relatives.” For example, many little girls of nine or 10 say innocently: “My babu (master) is very affectionate, he often puts me on his lap and pets me saying ‘good girl, good girl’.” “Often, men will ask DWs to massage their bodies and nobody thinks anything about it. Even male DWs are sexually abused,” explains Mohanty. An NGO study in India found that out of 70,000 sex workers, 15% had begun working as DWs between the ages of 15 and 18.

The government of Orissa is apathetic, even fatalistic, about the problem of child labour, given the reality that 48% live below the poverty line. The state does have 18 National Child Labour Projects (NCLP), spread through 513 special child labour schools, in 18 of the 30 districts that claim to have rehabilitated upwards of 30,000 children. This year, Balasore and Cuttack too will be brought under the NCLP. Critics, however, say that district child welfare committees are functional in only 7 of the 30 districts. When accused of inaction, officials at the women and child development department and labour department pass the buck back and forth, saying that unless a case is filed with the police they cannot initiate any action. The onus of pro-activism therefore now seems to rest squarely with non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

On orders from the Supreme Court, the central government amended the All India Service (Conduct) Rules 1968, in February 2000. This prohibited the employment of children below the age of 14 as domestic servants by government servants. In Orissa their homes are the last places anyone -- government or NGO -- will target.

Time and again it is seen that when protectors who turn predators have some (even minor) standing in the community, or possess financial or professional clout, arrests are avoided and justice delayed. All cases of child DW exploitation and abuse that come to light are seen against the backdrop of ‘backward’ villages or small towns. But this does not mean that abuse -- sexual or otherwise -- of child DWs is not common within the households of those holding power and office. Prashant’s case is only the latest to prove this point. Poverty may be these children’s overt enemy, but the covert perpetrators of these crimes are people with moral indifference.

(Manipadma Jena is a senior development journalist and consultant based in Bhubaneswar, Orissa. She may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

InfoChange News & Features, July 2004