Exploited Children | India | Living in Mexico

Exploited Children

Where there is poverty, children are put to work. In Mexico, I see six-year-olds selling Chiclets. I don't buy from them—a difficult decision. Poor families need the money, but they're mortgaging their children's future, taking them out of school to sell stuff.

Children enhance beggars' supplications. A mother with a baby in one hand, reaching out with the other, touches my heart if not my wallet. I see begging women carrying infants both in Mexico and India.

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In Dharamsala these mothers use an approach I haven't run across elsewhere. They tell you they don't want your money; they want milk for their babies. Would you please come into the nearby store and buy them a liter? Who could resist?

I'm told the baby never sees any milk out of the transaction. You buy the milk; later the mother re-sells it to the cooperative shopkeeper for half price. She gets a little cash, the shopkeeper gets some too, and he keeps the milk to sell to someone else.

I don't like being hustled, but then I have to consider that those mothers live in terrible poverty. They are trying to survive as are so many others. So what if they try to find a way to stand out from the crowds of the deformed, the disabled, the lepers? India has too few donors trying to help far too many needy people. Competition among beggars is intense and sometimes may be a matter of life and death.

This little boy walks the streets, beating his drum. His sister carries a shopping bag to receive handouts—a bag that seems rather capacious for the few coins she's likely to garner in a day's work.

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There's a reason for the big bag. In cash-poor India, many people give beggars food instead of money. The bag is for carrying the type of donations she's most likely to receive.

These kids are professional beggars-in-training. At least their parents haven't broken their limbs or amputated their fingers to enhance their appeal. (I couldn't bring myself to photograph people so disfigured; not them nor lepers with missing fingers and noses and bleeding bandages). The kids will master their profession and become like this man, squatting in the street, consuming a dinner someone just deposited in his bowl.

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Children of better-off parents provide opportunities for unemployed young people. This Tibetan refugee is babysitting, caring for his young charge all day long while mom and dad work. Many young men are so employed. For this teenager, it's stultifying work. He'd rather be in college. Or in a club somewhere in the west. But babysitting is infinitely better than begging, so he stands there all day, stoic, dreaming of what might be. His future too has been mortgaged.

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Below we have a large tour group in the center of Jaisalmer Fort. They are the epitome of why I avoid tours: standing around waiting for the last of the group to arrive, spending hours standing in front of some point of interest while a guide yammers on about oldest, biggest, costliest, or the tedious peccadillos of some 14th-Century maharaja.

The people in this group are French.

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Nearby, a troupe of child musicians performs for them; singing and dancing, accompanied by a harmonium—a small hand-pumped organ. (You can buy a nice double-reed model on eBay India for about a hundred dollars.)

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Having alertly divined the nationality of the crowd, they sing "Frère Jacques."

A common sight: little girls walking tightropes while balancing objects on their heads. Must be a recognized profession.

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I'm intrigued by her balancing pole. It looks heavy. The weight is carried by a harness around her neck. That way, her pipestem arms won't tire, while she can still use the inertia of the pole to maintain balance by pushing up or down on one end.

Tightrope girls work at night, too, this one at a celebration at the beginning of the diwali festival, India's most popular holiday. (Diwali can be thought of as an equivalent of Christmas.)

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She is crossing the rope without a balancing pole, scooting along while kneeling on a pie tin.

Exploiting children is anathema in the west. While discouraged by the government, child labor isn't condemned in India. To me, their child labor laws seem outrageous. The government bans employment of children below the age of fourteen in factories, mines, abattoirs or slaughterhouses, or in work such as printing, cashewnut descaling, or soldering.

Thank God they're spared cashewnut descaling. I can only wonder what that entails.

Fifty years ago, I was not permitted to work as a checker in a grocery store until I was sixteen, and then only under restrictions aimed at my welfare. Rich countries can afford to protect their young. In India, it's simply not possible.

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