In India child slaves are mostly boys not girls

8 April 2015

Much has been written about trafficking and bonded labour of girls in the Asian sex industry. However, as we found on an investigative visit to slavery hotspots in Bihar in March organised by the Freedom Fund, it is mostly boys who are sent into bonded labour.

They are generally sent off by their families to pay a debt or take out an advance loan. Sometimes they are sent by their mothers. And they might be sold to pay for their sister's marriage to avoid forcing her to work outside the village. When I and my Indian colleague Rituu B Nanda asked a group of women in a rural slavery hotspot what they would do if they were widowed with a loan and had both boys and girls they asked for the ages of the children. We responded that all children of this widow still lived at home. Her oldest girl was around 12 to 14 and her oldest boy was around 6 to 8. Their faces lit up. ‘I would take out an advance for the boy and send him off to work and repay it. With the advance I would get the girl married.’  Most women nodded.

These answers show some of the complex interactions between gender and bonded labour in a patrilocal and patrilinear cultural context. It is the oldest sons who are being sent out for bonded labour and end up in bangle factories, stone quarries or farms often in other states not knowing what their wages are, unable to walk away and subject to threats and violence to repay a family's debt. Women and girls are only allowed to work in nearby areas and preferably in a public visible space. ‘It is too dangerous for girls to go out of the village’. When we asked what a widow with only a 12-14 year old daughter and a loan would do they said they would train the girl to do domestic work at their house. That would enable them to go out to cut grass or work in the field for a rich person in the village. When we asked a group of men what they thought a woman could do in such a situation a local politician said after a long silence. ‘Collect charity money in the village. Hopeless’. Most men laughed.

Working outside is seen as safe for boys as long as they travel in a group with other children and not alone. For a girl, working outside is seen as too dangerous because of sexual harassment, which obviously overlooks the fact that boys can be and are also sold to work in the sex industry. Rescue experts told us that they think 90 per cent of child labourers are boys. There are not only more boys but they are also easier to spot than girls because they travel in groups. Girls are much more hidden and travel alone, or as a false relative. Girls avoid returning to their home village as this might shame the whole family. But boys do return and may be sold off many times by their families until they are old enough to be an adult slave paying off their own individual loan. ‘I have gone out of the village since I was seven years old. I forgot how many times. I now work in Delhi in a noodle factory to pay off my own debt’ said a young male adult in his twenties whom we met.

Graduation into adulthood in a rural slavery hotspot for boys means leaving school, family and the village and taking out a loan. Rescued boys explained they left school to help their family; they felt it made no sense to finish school when there are no jobs in the village. They felt the lower and scheduled castes (Dalit) children do not learn at schools because they were discriminated against. To pass an exam children have to go to a private tutor - often in another village - which their family could not pay. But the tutors are expensive. For girls they are too far away to travel alone.

What is the role of outsiders in addressing modern slavery? Rescue efforts are important but they do not help much in solving the root causes that lead to trafficking of boys in rural hotspots. Indeed, rescued boys are sometimes not happy to be rescued at the point of rescue. They see themselves as having failed: instead of bringing money to their family, they have brought them public shame, as well as possible prosecution for having sold them. This perspective often changes after they have received support and can see alternatives.

One of the root causes is the high interest rates charged by moneylenders, who are often the only sources of funds for families in desperate circumstances. Others include weak health systems and high out-of-pocket health expenses, dowry practices, lack of jobs, and caste and class discrimination, all of which are affected by gender norms and values. As outsiders we share some of the problematic gender biases that result in these situations: we are inclined to flock to save people who are female and young, while male victims are a bit less likely to excite our sympathies. Trafficking of girls for the sex industry does happen. Yet we should not lose our enthusiasm for supporting boys who are unable to escape their circumstances, and are subjected to constant threats and violence while trying to protect their sisters and mothers from sexual violence inside and outside the sex industry.

Pauline Oosterhoff is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and Rituu B Nanda is an independent consultant based in Delhi.

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