Children's Rights

Easy Targets: Violence Against Children Worldwide

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Violence in the Workplace

I got beaten if I arrived late or if I made a mistake; he was constantly abusing me. He hit me on the back and on my hand. I worked with three other children, and he hit them also. If I did not go to work, he would come to my house and catch me and beat me.[79]

— Munni G., a nine-year-old carpet weaver, India

The International Labor Organization estimates that 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work in developing countries— at least 120 million full time. Children are often expected to work long hours that keep them out of school, and subjected to grueling conditions and health and other hazards. In addition, many children are also subjected to beatings or other forms of violence by their employers or supervisors.

In the cotton fields of Egypt, where over a million children work each year to remove pests that damage the crops, physical abuse by foremen is routine. Children typically gauged the leniency of a foreman by the severity and frequency of the beatings that he administered. One ten-year-old boy worked under two foremen. “One of them I hate; the other one I like,” he told Human Rights Watch in late 1999. “The one I hate used to beat and kick me whenever I missed a leaf. The other one beats and kicks me lightly.”[80]

Severe maltreatment caused some children to quit work entirely or seek employment under the supervision of a different foreman. A nine-year-old Egyptian girl described a steady process of attrition from her work group. “The last group I was in started with twenty-two [children],” she said, “but you know, children don’t like to be hit, so they turn up in another foreman’s group. Our group ended up with twelve.”

In India, an estimated 15 million children are bonded laborers, working in conditions of servitude in order to pay off debts incurred by their family. Most work in the agricultural sector, while others work in domestic servitude, prostitution, or the production of silk, beedi (hand-rolled cigarettes), handwoven carpets, jewelry, leather and other products. During an investigation in late 1995 and early 1996, Human Rights Watch found that bonded child laborers were frequently punished for arriving late, working slowly, making a mistake in the work, talking to other workers, or even missing work because of illness.

With very few exceptions, the beedi rollers we interviewed all complained of being beaten. A ten-year-old bonded beedi roller told us:

The agent would beat me with a stick if I was not there on time, he beat me if I could not roll 1,500 beedies a day, and he beat me if I was tired. I had to roll eight beedies a minute. If I failed he would beat me. If I looked around, he beat me. He made me put a matchbox under my chin; if it fell, he beat me. [81]

Girls were subjected to sexual abuse, and those working inside Indian factories were frequently targeted for sexual assault by the factory owners. The practice was so prevalent that it was difficult for these girls later to get married. Because of the high rate of abuse, everyone assumed that the factory girls had been “touched,” that is, molested or raped by their employers. As a consequence, they were shunned as potential brides.

Girls subjected to sexual abuse by employers may also risk contracting HIV/AIDS. In Kenya, a study of girls working as housemaids found that of twenty-five girls aged nine to sixteen years who were interviewed in depth, eighteen were HIV-positive. Of those eighteen, most had worked in several homes and reported being sexually abused in all or most of them. Fifteen of the girls said their first sexual experiences were coerced and were with their employer or someone in his family or circle of friends.[82] Kenya is estimated to have about 1 million children who have lost parents to AIDS and many more whose parents are ill with the disease. In Kenya and many other African countries, these AIDS-affected children are likely to have to leave school and seek work, and they may wind up on the streets or in jobs that put them at risk of violence.

In Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch spoke to about seventy children during a 1998 investigation of the treatment of child domestic workers. Almost all of the children reported being punished by their employer for being “naughty,” for being careless, or for not completing assigned tasks. The punishment ranged from deprivation of privileges, to smacking, and beatings with a cane or stick. Several children had been deliberately burnt. Some of the children had been badly injured during these “punishment” sessions and many had scars caused by beatings.[83]

Several of the Sri Lankan girls we interviewed also experienced sexual abuse at the hands of their employer, their employer’s children, or their employer’s friends. Such abuse is frequently known to agents who arrange for the children’s employment. One agent told us of how he had recruited over a thousand children for domestic service when he knew that the primary purpose of the recruitment was sexual.[84]

In Ecuador, where Human Rights Watch interviewed forty-five children who had worked on banana plantations in early 2001, we learned that girls working in banana packing plants routinely experience sexual harassment in the workplace.  “He goes around touching girls’ bottoms. . . .  I was taking off banana plastic coverings, and he touched my bottom.  He keeps bothering me,” one twelve-year-old girl said, speaking of one of her supervisors.  “He gave my cousin the nickname ‘whore.’”  Another twelve-year-old girl told us, the boss of the packing plants makes lewd remarks “when we bend down to pick up plastic bags.” [85]

In Burma, the government has forced millions of people, including many children as young as twelve years old, to work without pay on the construction of roads, railways, and bridges. Many of these forced laborers have died from beatings, exhaustion and lack of medical care. In 1996, Human Rights Watch witnessed a group of schoolchildren being forced to clear streets of small rocks. One of the children, a young boy about twelve years of age, was kicked in the face by a soldier when he temporarily stopped working.[86]

[79] Human Rights Watch, The Small Hands of Slavery: Bonded Child Labor in India (New York: Human Rights Watch 1996), pp. 109.

[80] Human Rights Watch, Underage and Unprotected: Child Labor in Egypt’s Cotton Fields (New York: Human Rights Watch 2001), p. 15

[81] Human Rights Watch, The Small Hands of Slavery, pp. 51-52.

[82] Human Rights Watch, In the Shadow of Death: HIV/AIDS and Children’s Rights in Kenya (New York, Human Rights Watch 2001), p. 16.

[83] Human Rights Watch interviews, Batticaloa, Badulla, Kandy, and Kalutara districts, Sri Lanka, November and December 1998.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Human Rights Watch interviews, Balao, Ecuador, May 19, 2001.

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