“Close your eyes and think about your childhood,” says Jatin Mondar, Project Director at Save The Children India, as he introduces us to some of the challenges they are working to overcome in several cotton-producing communities like Haryana and Punjab. “Visualise your own childhood. How your parents celebrated when you were born. How patiently they fed you and worried about your nutrition. How they cuddled and played with you. How excited they were on your first day of school. When you went to high school. And then cried tears of joy when you graduated from university.”
“Now imagine if you were born a girl child in rural India.”
You were probably not wanted
Your parents, if they had enough money, might have tried to abort you when they found out that you were a girl.
When a boy is born in Haryana, tradition dictates that parents will beat a spoon against a steel plate called a Thaali as a signal to the community that a child has been born. The loud clanging is a celebration of your arrival into the world.
When you were born – a girl child – there was only silence
Your parents named you Bhateri, which in Hindi means “Enough” because after giving birth to four other girls, they’ve had enough and want to cry out the gods that they have had enough and want a boy. When your Uncle fights to name you Kushboo (Fragrance), your grandmother rebukes him and tells him it’s a waste of a good name.
By the time you’re five years old, you’re caring for younger siblings. If your parents have finally managed to have a boy, he gets all the food and you and your sisters will likely be malnourished and neglected.
Working the fields
By the time you’re 10 years old, you’re doing household chores, taking care of the animals and doing the cooking. When it’s cotton-picking season, you’re out in the fields harvesting in the beating sun with your family, since the more hands there are, the more income the family will have. Your nostrils flare with the chemical burn of insecticides from the fields. Your fingers bleed after being pricked by the sharp thorns clutching the cotton flowers.
The next season, your family migrates to another province to pick cotton. Local farmers prefer migrant workers; so there is a better chance to get work elsewhere. But this means that you’re plucked out of school, at least for the season. When you return, you’re far behind in your studies and because of taunting from your fellow classmates and teachers, you drop out.
If you stayed around, instead of migrating with your family, chances are, you’ve been sexually abused. Either by a family member or someone from your village.
By the time you’re 14 or 15 years old, you’re married off as a child bride to a husband from another village. And the cycle is most likely to continue when you give birth to another girl child.
My heart is both heavy and swelling with pride
Breaking this cycle requires more than just a simple Band-Aid approach. There are cultural factors so deeply rooted in tradition that they might seem impossible to sway. But shifts are happening! And this is because of the dedicated work of IKEA Foundation partner Save The Children to tackle the root causes of child labour in cotton-producing communities.
After a full day on the field, visiting a few different projects, my head is swimming with stories. Stories of challenges to overcome and victories to celebrate. My heart is both heavy and swelling with pride for the work that these organisations are doing to protect, educate and empower girls. Follow-us on our journey and find out more over the course of our trip!
Enough is more than enough…