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Getting Children Out Of Cotton Fields and Into School
" An estimated 414,000 children, mainly girls, are working in India’s cotton industry. A IKEA’s Social Initiative program in partnership with UNICEF and government of India is helping thousands of such "

Mani Thyappa (14, at left) who says she was 'beaten like a donkey' by a landowner after being forced to work in the fields at Yera Gera Village in Southern Indian state of Karnataka. After being taken from the fields and put into school this year her life


By Diana Coulter

Raichur, India 3 August 2010 – Mani Thyappa was “beaten like a donkey” when she tried to chat with other children working in the cotton fields.

If the children attempted a song, brief game or slowed their work because pesticide fumes, sun and intense heat made them dizzy, the landowner would grab a tree branch and lash out.

“He scolded us with bad words and would strike us on the legs, back and shoulders,” Mani recalls. But she could do nothing. The farmer had loaned her parents 20,000 Rupees (about $500 U.S.) in return for four years of their daughter’s daily labour.

At age 12, she was forced to leave school and for two years stooped silently beside 15 other girls and boys at the farm in the Indian state of Karnataka, caught in a relentless cultivation cycle of cotton in summer, tobacco in fall, chillies in winter and finally neem seed collection in spring.

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Then one day last year, strangers showed up in her tiny village of Yeragera and convinced her parents and employer to send her back to school.

“Finally, I was free and could talk with my friends again,” Mani, 14, says now with obvious delight as she shows off her new schoolbag, pencil case, and neatly-drawn notes to a circle of admiring girls.

“It was a bad time, but now I’m happy,” she adds.

Mani’s story is like many others in the “cotton corridor” that runs through the poverty-stricken region of Raichur, Karnataka. Recently, thousands of children under the age of 14 were once again getting the chance to stop work and attend school.

Thanks to the funding support of IKEA Social Initiative, in partnership with UNICEF and the Indian government, it is hoped that by 2011 about 15,000 of the estimated 20,000 working children between the ages of six to 14 in Raichur and a neighboring region will be back at school.

Children between the ages of 15 to 18 are to be offered vocational training like tailoring and embroidery.

In India’s cotton industry alone, it’s estimated that 414,000 children, mainly girls, are working. About half are less than 14-years-old, and many others are teens 15 to 18-years-old. Almost 90 per cent of these children don’t attend school.

Children are employed because they are paid much less (about $1 dollar daily), work longer (12 hours) and can’t easily complain.

Cotton production is painstaking work that requires long hours of cleaning, seeding and hauling water to fields, then standing and individually cross-pollinating each flower by hand, before finally plucking every bloom.

Often, the kids suffer respiratory and other health problems caused by exposure to pesticides, extreme heat and physical stress. Some are also beaten or sexually abused by employers.

Since 2006, UNICEF and IKEA Social Initiative have partnered together to tackle child labour in India by building public awareness about existing laws that forbid it. The country’s child labour law prohibits the hiring of children younger than 14, but enforcement has been difficult since few understand their rights.

Now a fresh campaign around Raichur has mobilized UNICEF, government and partner NGOs to fan out to hundreds of villages for public rallies, to perform street plays, to meet with schools, police and officials, and to promote the anti-child labour cause with posters, radio and television campaigns.

In this primarily agricultural district, people are warned not to employ children in fields, and to keep them out of countless other industries, including restaurants, hotels, brickworks, garages, mines, and metal works.

But the region of Raichur, meaning “pieces of rock” has large tracts of marginal farm land and many socially excluded tribal and low-caste people, most of whom live below the poverty line and feel they must send their children to work.

In Mani’s case, a local UNICEF partner and villagers influenced by awareness campaigns convinced the girl’s parents and employer to free her under threat of legal penalties, including jail.

It was difficult because Mani’s parents still owe her employer 10,000 Rs (about $250 US) for two more years of her work. They borrowed the money to pay for her baby brother’s appendix operation and to supplement their own daily wages of about $2 US.

“We have a lot of poverty. That’s why we sent her,” says her mother, Sundamma, hoisting son, Virendra, now 2, on her hip.

“I don’t want her to work,” Sundamma adds. “After the fields, she has red eyes, her hands are sore, and sometimes she vomits and gets dizzy from sun.”

Now, the family is doing its best to pay off the remaining loan, Sundamma says, but child labour laws will also be on their side.

“I do want my daughter in school,” she adds. “I know she’s happy there.”

At Yeragera Higher Primary School, where Mani now studies, headmistress Janhavi Muralidnar says about 50 children have returned to classes there since the recent campaign against child labour began last year.

“We’re very happy because new people have come to help us get children back in school,” says Muralidnar. “Before, we would try to talk to families ourselves, but with the rallies, festivals and plays about child labour, people here understand better.”

Mani’s teacher, Archana Srikantamurty, also says it’s wonderful having so many fresh, eager faces back in her classroom. She offers remedial studies to those who must catch up on missed subjects.

“These are good children who want to learn,” says Srikantamurty. “They appreciate so many people trying to help them.”

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