Friday, January 27, 2006

Of Babysitting and Stolen Childhoods

At least twice a month, Saturday nights were movie nights. We hired a babysitter to play with our young son for a couple of hours, drove to the nearest movie theater, got tickets to whatever movie still had a few seats open and watched that movie.

The neighborhood where we lived in northern Virginia had three girls in their early teens who were interested in babysitting and earning some money along the way. All three had obtained training in CPR (cardiac pulmonary resuscitation), were Girl Scouts (Girl Guides, as they are known in India) and were very professional in their approach to babysitting. They arrived at the appointed time and never canceled if they had promised they would be there on any given day.

One of them, in particular, took her job very seriously. The first day she was to babysit for us, she whipped out a one page, typed form for us to fill. The form asked for everything from our emergency contact information to our son's bedtime, his medications, if any, allergies, if any, his dinner time and what he liked to eat for dinner.

We were taken aback, to say the least.

She was also very well prepared to handle our son for the two odd hours she expected to play with him. She had brought along with her some crayons and pictures for him to color, and some games.

This Saturday night arrangement worked well for all parties involved. My husband and I got to hang out together and watch a movie or attend work-related events, our son had a fun time with a babysitter who wasn't averse to squealing like a child herself and running around the house after him, and the babysitter got to earn money for whatever she was saving for (one of them financed a trip to Mexico through her earnings).

When we moved to Bangalore about a year ago, I was delighted to find a lot of teens in our neighborhood. I, of course, saw potential babysitters in all of them. Fully expecting to have at least five potential babysitters in my rolodex by the end of the week, I approached two of them who were hanging out in the childrens' park in our apartment complex.

"Hi, I was looking for a babysitter for my son. Do you guys babysit?"

"Whaaa...?" read their expressions. They didn't have a clue as to what I was saying.

They looked at each other and got up and walked away, leaving me with my mouth hanging open.

I thought I had approached the whole thing wrong. May be I should've asked the parents.

So I talked to the mother of one of the girls. Her reaction was not much better than the one I got from the girls. Finally I got something along the lines of "I don't think she'll be interested," from the mother.

I couldn't figure it out. It's not that no one had ever heard of babysitting here. Moreover, what did the other parents do? Most families have both parents working and most families are nuclear units, so the need for a babysitter (as distinct from a full-time nanny) must arise at some point.

A couple of months down the road the picture became somewhat clearer. Most of the families with young children had someone staying with them. In some cases it was a grand-parent, but more often than not, a young girl, practically a child herself, transplanted from some village to live at the house and take care of children not much younger than herself.

I saw them everywhere. I saw them at the park with the kids (I saw more such young girls than the childrens' mothers in the park), I saw them at the grocery store handling the cart and the children while the mother piled the cart with groceries, I saw them at the school gates waiting patiently to pick up their wards.

You don't have to look very hard to find the irony in this picture. We hesitate to have our own children "work" while apparently having no objection to young children working long hours to care for our children.

And children don't just work in homes. They work in extremely hazardous conditions in factories and construction sites, in the cities as rag pickers and in the fields. Here is a heart-breaking story from a Human Rights Watch report from a few years ago about a girl forced to work in a beedi-rolling factory:
My sister is ten years old. Every morning at seven she goes to the bonded labor man, and every night at nine she comes home. He treats her badly, he hits her if he thinks she is working slowly or if she talks to the other children, he yells at her, he comes looking for her if she is sick and cannot go to work. I feel this is very difficult for her.

I don't care about school or playing. I don't care about any of that. All I want is to bring my sister home from the bonded labor man. For 600 rupees I can bring her home - that is our only chance to get her back.

We don't have 600 rupees. We will never have 600 rupees.
The entire report is here.

More recently, Outlook (January 23, 2006 issue) carried some horrifying stats on the state of child labor in India.
Nearly 17 million children have to work for a living, many of them in hazardous environments. Close to 30% of the 2 million sex workers are underage. Less than half of India's 430 million children go to schools.
And in any given month, there are at least two stories such as these about the discovery of child labor and the rescue of the children.

And there is something we can all do about it.

Next time you see a child working somewhere he or she should not be working, please report it to the authorities. Organizations such as Akshara Foundation will work with the families of such children and will give them lessons at least for a few hours everyday so that the endless cycle of lack of education and financial indebtedness is not repeated.

This post began on a somewhat facetious note about babysitters, but the point, really, is about children and their right to their childhood, to an education, and to at least the opportunity to get out of whatever financial morass their families have gotten into.

Crossposted on


Ashish Gupta said...

Alternate suggestion. Don't report to the authorities, but find him/her a less harmful work, or if you can, fund her education. Reporting to authorities will "rescue" him from that employer and leave him with his parents who probably cannot feed him and sent him to work for reasons which are still the same. While it is heartwrenching to know the problem, solution is in helping and supporting the child, and not just deprive him of the only employer who, however bad, is still feeding him, however small, and alternative would be nothing but beg.

Indu S said...

I am an NRI and what really saddens me the most is child sex workers. I do agree poverty is a problem in our country.

Vikrum said...

Hi Sujatha,

I'm writing from Amritsar. Thoughtful post. A few comments:

1. In the US, even among those with money, there is the idea that one should get some work experience during childhood. Many rich kids get summer jobs working construction, working as waiters, babysitters, etc. This mentality does not exist in the developing world whatsoever.

2. In the US, many parents with money prefer that their children earn their spending money (as opposed to doling it out). This isn't really the case in India, either.

3. I am not surprised that people were clueless in regards to babysitting your son. For those with money, it would be seen as a step down to babysit. After all, "that type of work is for ghatis."

4. I agree with you in your comments about the irony of people tolerating child labor but agast at the idea of their children working. I recently stayed with a family in which there were two children, about 8-10 years old, originally from a village in Nepal. The boy told me he loved to play cricket but could not since he worked as a servant all day. I was saddened by this, but tried to put it in context. It could very well be that this job was a better life than starving in a village in rural Nepal. Now, I am not justifying child labor whatsoever. But if it is a choice between starving in a village or working as a servant -- then it's a lost childhood, but the child is still alive.

remainconnected said...

Hi Sujatha,

I truely believe in your ideology but its very difficult to implement these in India per se.
To cite a simple example:"If I fund the education and support the well being of a kid from a poor background,people say seems this fellow has no other work in life and so he is into all this".

As you said it helps to report cases of child labor to the concerned authorities.But more than that I feel we need to change our own mind-set.When we say education is universal lets not keep it a gospel and lets make it practical.The more the people open up and the message spreads and think beyond their own world then you can solve these problems with ease and dexterity.Even if kid cannot make into a posh international school but s/he can make to a simple school,that itself is an achievement.I feel and see this in my life so education is something I passionately talk about.

When I am capable of doing something in life,let me not confine it to me and myself, I owe a lot to the society and so a humble and honest start will itself spread the message.The spirit of community and society is much prevelant in the Western world and in India we do have that but when I saw society and community I refer to my family members/relatives/friends.


Sujatha Bagal said...

Ashish and Swingingpuss, the reason I suggest informing the authorities is that the people who bring these children from the villages to work them in the cities must be punished. It's very easy for them to replace the labor with another young child unless they face the consequences of their actions. The children that are taken away by child protective services (I know they are called by another name here, just escapes me now) are housed with charitable institutions that provide them the basic necessities (some of them went to the Bethany charitable institution in Bangalore) and education.

Indu, I agree. It is simply wretched.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Vikrum, I completely agree with your points 1 to 3.

About point 4, I'm not so sure. I know that you are trying to be practical and not justifying the actions of the people that hire these children. Perhaps the kids do have a marginally better life than they would have in their own homes.

But, it is the mindset of their employers that I question. These people don't suffer from a lack of money or resources. How easy is it for them to send that child to school and follow up and make sure she sticks to her education!? How can they bring themselves to work a child? And I bet you, the parents send their children with the cityfolks with the hope and many times under assurances that they will be well taken care of. In fact, one of the newspaper stories I quote in my post mentions that. The kids came to the city to do some sightseeing with the rich man and ended up working in a quarry.

The choice should not be between starving and child labor. The choice should be to see the children as children and not as cheap labor. Employing them simply means the employer is taking advantage of their poverty and helplessness.

I know in the society that we live, this sounds hopelessly utopian and not at all practical. There are just too many of these children, too many people want to make money on cheap labor, too many of the parents don't know how to make ends meet without farming out their own children.

All these incentives are perfectly aligned to bring about child labor.

How do we change these incentives? How do we change the mindset?

I don't know. But I do know that it has to start with the so called "educated" people. People who should know better than to try and get away with this criminal behavior.

Sujatha Bagal said...

MG, couldn't agree more.

Tanay, why should people who want to do good care about what other people think of them? It is more important that a child's life is positively affected.

But I agree with you whole-heartedly about changing the mind-set part.

P.S. Ashish, Swingingpuss, Indu, Vikrum, MG and Tanay, thank you all for your comments.

Vikrum said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Vikrum said...

Hi Sujatha,

I completely agree with you. You know that I was not justifying the employers' actions whatsoever. I was just trying to make sense out of all of it. Why would parents allow their children to work like that? One reason is because they are starving. Again, this does not justify the employers' actions whatsoever, but puts the parents' action in more context. I agree that some impetus has to come from the "educated people." Instead of using children as servants, the employers should put them in school, pay for their fees, and encourage them to study. You're preaching to the choir!


Perhaps I was unclear in point 4. I was not justifying any of this whatsoever (it seemed that you were implying that I was justifying child exploitation). I thought I made my point clear enough: It is evil to use child labor.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Hi Vikrum,

I know I'm preaching to the choir.:)))

B ut this issue of the mindset has been bothering me for some time. In many ways, we seem to be living in some kind of a weird alternative world whose ideas are so totally out of whack with what should be desirable. Some of them you've written about, such as how women are treated in everyday lives. It's not that these evils are not visible anywhere else, it's just that it is so pervasive here.

Anonymous said...


I know this will sound cliched but welcome to Hypocrite India Soceity. I am sure you are one of those people who go out and do their bit rahter than sit in pubs and disucss this, however the majority will talk and talk and then go home and hire a child to do cheap labour. It sickens me the way we treat children in India. Every child who is deprived of education and childhood is a loss for thr nation and society. I am not sure what the solution is, as I have seen situations where one child working in the city was feeding his family back home! Let me know if you are working with any NGO's who are using some creative ideas to fight this problem.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Asheesh, the Akshara Foundation is working with the children who support their families. They talk to the employers and the parents and convince them to send the children to their volunteer teachers for a few hours every day.

Romila said...


Browsing through "babysitters in Bangalore",I came across your blog and this post made interesting reading. A senior graphic designer some 5 months back ,I had bade a temporary farewell to my career to look after my own 3 month old baby. My sister stays with me, herself adept at handling an assorted number of nieces and nephews of all ages. The limitation or rather the absence of a babysitter in India and in Bangalore had initiated the thought of babysitting at our own residence on an hourly basis.

My own experience of not finding a babysitter to leave my baby for a few hours in loving & caring hands so that I can go and enjoy a wedding reception whole-heartedly without worry resulted with helping other parents leave their baby behind with us while they go for their errands/chores.

When need arises, you can certainly remember us.

My name :Romila
Contact no: 9886020773

Sujatha Bagal said...


Thank you for this information.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'm a late entrant to this discussion but I feel this is a very relevant thread.

What Sujatha & others have said is very valid. There's no dignity of labor and this is the reason everyone looks down upon manual work as something for the 'lower class'

it would be very interesting if we (this generation) could inculcate the positive attitude towards labor in our children thus imbibing some of the positive aspects of life in the US/West other than blindly aping the usuallly sought for American stuff PepsiCokeMac

We have a 15 month baby and my wife is a full time mother. we've been looking for a babysitter who could take care of our daughter for atleast 1/2 day on weekdays so that my wife can have some much needed rest.

we've tried through our usual contacts but nobody wants to come for 1/2 a day and those who do are demanding money that a full time help would ask even without having any prior experience.

Later my wife would also start working again (she was just prior to her first trimester) but we dont know if we could find anyone trustworthy close to home by then.

Initiatives like the one Romila has started is really challenging and at the same time the 'need of the hour'. Romila you've not mentioned the area in b'lore you live in but surely expect a call from a desperate parent.


Sujatha Bagal said...

Vijay, good luck with your search. I do hope you and your wife find what you are looking for.

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