A report, based on an evidence-based study by a multinational NGO, Global March Against Child, which headquarters in the Hague, providing an overview of child labour with a gender lens in sugarcane harvesting in India, has said that large number of children are pushed into hazardous child labour due to structural poverty among harvesters, most of whom are from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes.
Suffering from exploitative hiring practices, the report says, traditional gender-based norms have contributed significantly to child labour by normalising unequal wages and unpaid family work, the report, prepared by NGO policy research coordinator Gazal Malik and project officer Kratika Choubey, seeks to focus on the facets of gender and caste as cross-cutting issues to be kept in mind while addressing the problem of child labour in sugarcane supply chain and in other agricultural crops in India.
Maheswari and Kavita (names changed) who migrated from Bellary to Mandya district of Karnataka, also known as the “Sugarcane City”, had just returned from a sugarcane farm located 2 kilometers away. Their work was not finished yet. The sisters had come back to the padav (temporary accommodation for migrant workers engaged in sugarcane harvesting) to fetch water for the next morning before it was too dark for them to walk alone to the nearest hand pump.
“Will you wait for us to come back or do you want to walk with us towards the handpump?” asked Kavita, looking at Maheshwari and suddenly bursting into laughter. As we walked with them towards the handpump, Maheshwari shared that afternoon is the only time when they can get some water from the handpump because in mornings and evenings the locals don’t let them fill water from the community handpump and hurl casteist remarks at them. “Two of the upper caste men also tried to grope us last week.” said Maheswari while signaling us to walk faster”.
While Maheswari dropped out of school after fifth grade, Kavita was never enrolled in any educational institute. Both of them started working on the sugarcane farm as soon as they learnt to use a koyta (a sickle used to cut cane, also a term used to refer to migrant sugarcane workers). They would soon be married at the age of 15 and 17 respectively, into a family of migrant sugarcane harvesters.
When asked why they are getting married early, they reluctantly shared that their parents have to worry about their safety all the time so they will be “given” to a suitable boy and their parents can work peacefully. “I asked my parents to wait for some more time,” Kavita said, “But they told me this is the right age and I am not the only girl getting married at this age”.
After Maheswari and Kavita are married, they will have to continue working on the sugarcane fields with their new family. As has been the experience of many other female sugarcane harvesters that we interacted with, both of these girls will end up working for an average of 16-18 hours a day, in addition to the unpaid labour at home.
They are also likely to cut cane till the very last day of their pregnancy, without receiving any maternity benefits such as paid leaves or extra rest time. Statistically speaking, there’s an 80% chance that their children will never access school education and end up in the labour market.
Child marriage is illegal, yet it is prevalent in regions where farming incomes are low and migration for harvesting sugarcane has been a norm. For instance, in the Dang region of Gujarat, a predominantly tribal area, 33% of the total marriages in 2019 were child marriages, as reported by the rural municipality. Hardships caused by multidimensional poverty and the fear of sexual abuse of young girls are reported as the principal drivers of child marriage in the region.
As a consequence of Covid-19, the practice of child marriage is becoming more and more common amongst migrant families because of the increasing debt and decreasing household income. Thus, for children belonging to families made desperate by caste based structural poverty the choices are not many but to engage in child labour, give in to child marriage as a means of survival and avoid being victims of sexual exploitation.