Every year, hundreds of thousands of girls are trafficked from rural India to work as domestic servants in middle-class homes in India’s fast-growing urban areas. They are expected to work at least 15 hours a day for food, lodging and salaries well below the legal minimum monthly wage of about $125. Many end up cut off from their families, abused and treated like slaves. Some are sexually assaulted.
India erupted in outrage at the gang rape last month of a young woman on a moving bus in New Delhi. But in the same city, experts say, a vast network of child trafficking and abuse operates with society’s implicit sanction and official apathy. As India strives to become a modern and developed nation, the problem serves as a reminder of the exclusion of a vast swath of the population from the benefits of a rising economy and the broad indifference of many middle-class Indians to the rights of the poor.
“The trafficking of young children, especially girls, under the garb of placement agencies is the biggest organized crime in India today. And the worst part is, it is right there in the open, in our homes, and yet invisible,” said Bhuwan Ribhu of the child rights group Bachpan Bachao Andolan.
One of the six suspects in the gang-rape case, a purported 17-year-old, was himself trafficked at age 11 from a poor village in northern India to a life of child labor in the capital, where he worked in a roadside restaurant and as a bus driver’s assistant, police have said. He soon lost touch with his parents.
Law widely flouted
Many middle-class Indians believe they are helping poor families by giving their children work. But according to municipal law in New Delhi, which has enacted some of India’s strictest child labor laws, they should be jailed. Employing people younger than 18 in a hazardous job, as domestic service is defined, has been a non-bailable offense since 2009.
But the law is widely flouted, said Ribhu, who added that on rare occasions police carry out “rescue operations” of underage servants after complaints from parents or activists.
“Almost all of the domestic maids are either minors, or started work as maids before they were 18,” Ribhu said.
There has never been a systematic attempt to determine the scale of the problem. The government says 5 million children are employed in India, but activists say the real number could be 10 times that. A senior official at India’s Home Affairs Ministry, which oversees the police, estimated that as many as 4 million children work in domestic service nationwide and that up to 4,000 placement agencies operate in New Delhi and its suburbs alone.