Girl children from low-income families in urban and rural areas are caught in vicious web of child marriage, child labour and trafficking in the State.
Girl children from low-income families in urban and rural areas are caught in vicious web of child marriage, child labour and trafficking in the State.Illustration by Saai

Heavy burden on little shoulders

The high prevalence of child rights violations in urban areas due to lack of adequate facilities for education is another concern.

CHENNAI: Shaktishewari, once a child labour from Vyasarpadi, is now a football player and practicing law. After years of struggling to live with dignity, she has not only escaped child labour but is also a role model for other girls of her age.

Her parents struggled to provide her with basic food and education for her and her five siblings. As she reached Class 7, she had to drop out of school and work at a fish packing and export company for a paltry remuneration of Rs 15/day.

Starting from 6-7 hours/day, she had to work overtime — for about 12 hours/day — to make a few bucks more. However, her love for football and help through intervention from Slum Children Sports Talent Education Development Society (STEDS), helped her overcome these situations.

Sakthi is Tamil Nadu’s first women football referee and has refereed more than 90 matches. She brought home many national and international football trophies and has represented the Indian team in the International Match for Slum children in Paris (France).

Abysmal numbers

Shaktishewari is not an isolated case. Girl children from low-income families in urban and rural areas are caught in the vicious web of child marriage, child labour and trafficking in the State.

Child Rights Activists say that the intervention is not possible in all cases as they do not even surface as FIR reports or complaints.

According to 2020’s data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 785 cases were registered under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. The number of cases registered in Tamil Nadu was 77 — this took the State to the fourth spot in the list.

The data also shows that Tamil Nadu reported 11 human trafficking cases in 2020. The number of untraced missing children due to the proven linkage between missing children and child trafficking, the NCRB 2020 report highlights that Tamil Nadu reported 1,769 untraced missing children in 2020 (including 1,551 untraced missing children from 2019), a substantial increase of 14% from the previous year.

“Education empowers girl children and is deeply interlinked to safeguarding girls from various protection issues. Issues like child labour, trafficking, and child marriage have a significant bearing on children’s education, forcing millions of girl children to drop-out and/or discontinue their schooling,” says John Roberts, regional director (south), Child Rights and You (CRY).

Relocation affects education quality

The high prevalence of child rights violations in urban areas due to lack of adequate facilities for education is another concern.

“The relocation of people from unorganised sectors has occurred for many years in the past. There are hardly adequate services in these relocated colonies. With no basic amenities such as anganwadi, schools, healthcare facilities for children, drop outs from schools are a given” says child activist A Devaneyan.

Children from these colonies are more vulnerable to violations. The size of these colonies has been increased now but there has been no improvement in the ways to earn a living.

“The quality of education was low, and itr plummeted further especially after the pandemic,” Devaneyan laments. “There are not enough teachers, and this leads to children dropping out of schools. They become labourers, and girls especially, are vulnerable to abuse. The urban poverty and issues concerning girl children have not been given much importance.”

Child marriage, teen pregnancy

Another issue facing girl children in Tamil Nadu is early marriage leading to teenage pregnancy, especially in rural areas.

“Only in the case of institutional deliveries do we get to hear about them. But, there could be many non-institutional deliveries also. In most cases, the FIR is not filed and there is no monitoring,” says child rights activist S Prabakaran.

Such incidents happen when mostly single parents pressure the child to get married at a young age, he adds. “This is common in Southern districts where the family does not want outsiders to have rights over the ancestral property,” he elaborates.

Unfortunately, such cases, even if reported, are not followed up or monitored. “The child welfare committee or social welfare department gets a written document directing the families to not follow such practices. Such marriages should be nullified by the district court or district social welfare department. However, the follow-up of these cases is nil and within a week, the child is brought back to the in-laws. Even in Chennai, which is a metro city, there are incidents of child marriage but not many are reported,” rues Prabakaran.

Intervention at every level

The lack of adequate education and awareness on individual rights worsen the issue. John adds that CRY works towards addressing the issue of child labour and preventing child marriage, but it’s more effective when child labourers are identified through individual household visits and community-level interventions.

Dropping out of school leaves children vulnerable and exposed to an increased risk of becoming victims to trafficking, forced labour, domestic servitude and other exploitative work.

“It’s absolutely essential for citizens, government and civil society organisations to come together to reduce school drop-outs, increase re-enrolment and promote the extension of Right To Education to pre-school and secondary levels. That’s the only way to ensure that children especially girls are educated and empowered enough to truly access their freedom,” states John.

NGO helps girl pursue education after marriage

CHENNAI: Anjugam (19) from Salem has faced myriad challenges. Born to daily wage labourers, she was married off at 17 as they could not afford to educate her. But marriage did not quell her willingness to study and work. When the Salem People Trust (SPT), a partner organisation with CRY, heard of Anjugam, they spoke to her parents and convinced them to let her study further. After pursuing her graduation and completing her first year, Anjugam is now working at a private mobile company in Sriperumbudur.

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