Child Labour

India: Finding a Voice in the Silk Industry

When families have no source of immediate income, often the only answer the families seem to have is sending their children to work. And just as the parents themselves were sent to work when they were young, the plague of child labour passes on from one generation to another. But in India’s silk industry, now it is the mothers who are breaking the cycle of child labour. At the same time, thanks to a remarkably successful initiative, the mothers of the silk industry are finding their own voices; in their families, in their communities, and in changing society for the better.

Date issued: 28 September 2009 | Size/duration: 00:04:48 (16.5 MB)
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In the silk producing regions of India’s Karnataka State, the children always march “for children” on June 12th. Every year, World Day Against Child Labour is celebrated in a big way: every school, every village, and every district takes part.

But too often, the positive message of the marchers is drowned out by the endless whirring of the silk reels. For generations much of the silk industry has been powered by child labour. For families, it’s simply a matter of survival.

Rajamma, Silk Worker

My husband and I had so many debts we couldn’t even feed the children. So I put my babies in my lap and started working on the silk reels. And later, my three young children came to work with me, as child labourers.

Rajamma started working on the silk reels when she was just ten years old and she has been at it ever since. She never went to school, and never learned to read or write. And when her situation forced her to send her own children to work instead of to school, a relative told her about something called “the Self Help Groups.” It changed her life, and that of her family, forever.

The Self Help Group program, supported by the ILO and made possible in part by an Italian funded project and Karnataka State, trains the mothers of child labourers in saving and managing money, entrepreneurship and best practices in the silk reeling industry. After her training, the Self Help Group helped Rajamma organize a loan to start her own business. The former child labourer is now a businesswoman employing 20 people.

The first essential lesson at every Self Help Group meeting is how to save money. The mothers are taught to put a little money away each day. The money raised by each group gets a small amount of interest which increases over time. The group is then taught how to work collectively to get micro loans from banks to invest in equipment and space for their own businesses. The Self Help Groups give families the financial independence to finally get their children out of child labour, and into school.

Now Rajamma travels around to silk reeling shops, spreading the word about the Self Help Groups and how they changed her own life.

Woman, Self Help Group Participant

Rajamma told me about the benefits of the Self Help Group. I trusted her and I joined. It’s helped me learn about savings. I got a loan, but most importantly, I’ve been able to send my kids back to school.

Besides learning how to manage money and run a business, the mothers in the Self Help Groups learn about gender issues, their fundamental rights, and those of their children. The project developed a training manual which is now widely used across Karnataka. It’s all about giving the mothers of child labourers a voice, not only in their families but also in their communities, working on school development committees and social causes. Most importantly, the Self Help Groups give mothers the ability to…

Sanjiv Kumar, ILO National Project Coordinator

…do something for themselves! Because no one else will… whether it is a government department, or NGOs, or political leaders, or other social leaders, would be coming to their rescue if they are in need. If they collectively want to do that, and are capable of doing thatt, they can do that. The self help groups train them precisely to do that.

Rajamma, Self Help Group Organizer

I tell the women I meet that the Self Help Group can help them grow financially, and as an individual. Just like me, these women used to have difficulties sending their kids to school, but they are better off now.

It’s Rajamma’s own story, too. Now she and her husband and the employees spin the silk… and the children go to school.

Rajamma’s daughter

When we were children, my brothers and I had to work on the silk reels. We couldn’t go to school. But after my mother joined the Self Help Group, got a loan, and she started our own shop, everything changed. Now my elder brother is enrolled in an Industrial Training Course, my younger brother is in 8th Grade and I’m in my 2nd year of pre-University courses. I want to graduate and become a teacher.

In the three years of the program, more than 7,000 mothers have joined the Self Help Groups, and almost 6,000 children have been rescued from child work and sent to school. And the biggest impact may be on the mothers themselves, in their newly discovered sense of pride and self-worth.

The marches against child labour will go on in Karnataka. But the dream of eradicating child labour is getting closer to reality, thanks to the Self Help Groups, and the mothers of child labourers.