Teen Girl Abuse Case Highlights Indian Government Failure to Address Rural Poverty

The recent New York Times article “Maid’s Cries Cast Light on Child Labor in India” tells the story of a 13-year-old maid who was locked in her employers’ apartment for six days when they went on vacation to Thailand. This case is a poignant indicator of India’s abysmal failure to prevent child labor: it has more child laborers than any other country in the world, 12.6 million children between the ages of 5 and 14. Twenty percent of all child laborers work as domestic help in middle- and upper-class urban households.

More often than not, these children are from rural parts of India’s poorest states, sold by their families to job placement agencies (or worse, pimps) because of the crippling poverty that plagues rural India. This case is no exception: the young girl’s uncle sold her to a placement agency that sold her to a couple in New Delhi. Poor rural development, evident in the lack of opportunities for education or employment in India’s villages, is the driving force behind the high incidence of child labor.

Several factors are to blame for the abuse of this maid —from the urban middle- and upper-classes that have come to rely on the surplus of cheap labor, to the loophole in India’s labor laws that allows children aged 14-18 to work up to six hours a day. Not least of all, widespread social inequalities rooted in the caste system creates the attitude among affluent Indians that paid domestic labor is not contractual service born out of economic necessity, but abject servitude due to social inferiority.

But it is the government’s dishonest denial of the devastating poverty in rural India that is largely responsible for India’s child labor crisis. Education in rural India is pathetic, and employment prospects (particularly for girls and young women) are bleak.

The Indian government tackles rural poverty through various rural development schemes, which it claims have lifted 62.5 million people out of poverty. India’s Planning Commission released a survey last month that India’s poverty rate fell sharply, from 37.2% in 2004-2005 to 29.8% in 2009-2010. Unfortunately, a closer look at this statistic reveals that the commission has “reduced” poverty by keeping the poverty line significantly lower than the World Bank’s $1.25 per day. Setting a poverty line of 32 rupees ($0.64 ) per day for urban India and 26 rupees ($0.52) for rural India, the Planning Commission is able to boast that rural poverty has dropped by 8%.

On the other hand, the Asian Development Bank released a report in February suggesting that a 10% increase in food prices would put nearly 30 million more Indians into poverty (as measured by the World Bank poverty line) according to this article.

In all probability, this maid’s family was extremely poor and led her uncle to make the terrible choice of selling his niece. I do not argue that poverty absolves him of personal responsibility for committing this reprehensible act; however, I want to point out that the government’s failure to address poverty likely drove him (and several others) to desperation.

This case is an example of gross exploitation, in which the couple barely fed their maid and surveyed her every move with closed-circuit cameras. But domestic child laborers are widely mistreated across India: they leave their families behind and live in social isolation in their employer’s homes. They are paid staggeringly low wages (approximately $40 a month) if they are paid at all. Their vulnerability and lack of resources subsequently prevents them from reporting abuse, and most cases go unnoticed altogether.

In order to address its child labor crisis, the Indian government must first start with a concerted effort to reduce rural poverty.