Child labor steals childhood: Work replaces school for Indian boy

Shyam’s family has struggled with poverty his entire life. As a boy, he dropped out of school to help support his family. World Vision has helped his siblings and is trying to help him get back to learning.

By Annila Harris
Published June 9, 2014 at 05:15pm PDT

Glittering strips of silver infused with rich colors dangle in the air and bring the ornament to life.

“These are payals,” says Shyam* as he displays the anklets. Handcrafted to perfection, Shyam shows each silver and gold ornament, exhibiting his workmanship acquired over two years.

Pointing to silver, round-shaped bells, Shyam explains how they’re made and then rustles the anklets to demonstrate their function. “See, it makes a sound. So when you wear it and walk, it rings.”

The juxtaposition of the metals Shyam molds into fine jewelry and his life saga show a gaping contrast. Unlike the lustrous and noble metal he holds daily, Shyam lives a jaded and poor life.

Difficult decisions

From an early age, Shyam was conditioned to endure the pain poverty inflicts. He lives in the slum of Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, which is one of the largest states in India. Uttar Pradesh has one of the highest child labor populations in India. For Shyam’s family, earning regular income has proved a never-ending struggle.

“We had money problems at home,” he says. “My mother made clay toys, but these are only sold during festival season. My father was a laborer, so his earning was less. If my dad went to work that day, we had a little money, but if he didn’t go to work there was no money.”

He loved school, but at just 12, Shyam had convinced himself to make the ultimate sacrifice for his family. To support them, he traded his zeal to study for a job with long hours and low pay.

Even though it’s illegal to employ children, Shyam still found work in a smith shop. He cycled to work, put in 10 hours each day and initially received no pay. After months of free work as he showed promise in grasping the craft, he received more work and his first income — US$5 a month.

Even with Shyam working, his family barely got by each day. Because his family only had enough money for a meager dinner, he worked all day with just a cup of tea in his stomach.

As if circumstances weren’t hard enough, his father died, leaving Shyam to head the household at the age of 13. He begged his employer to increase his salary and now earns $17 per month.

“After his death when the responsibility of the house fell on my shoulders, I kept telling myself that I am the eldest — I need to protect the family, my mother, my brothers. Now it was my responsibility,” he says, fighting back tears. “I convinced myself it is for the best. It would help the others in the family. That day, I gave up my dream of studying ever again.”

Worth the sacrifice

Though he puts in long hours and often cuts himself on the sharp metal, Shyam believes his sacrifice is paying off, because his younger brothers are in school — not working.

“They are going to school now because World Vision enrolled them, otherwise they too would be working like me,” he says. “My brothers also attend World Vision’s extra coaching center. Every time I feel sad that I am not able to study, I calm myself by saying that my brothers would at least credit me that I am working and supporting the family, so that they can study…I will push my brother as much as possible and do everything in my power to make him study.”

Shyam’s younger brother, Gautam*, hopes his oldest brother can get an education, too. Gautam brought Shyam to the nonformal education center World Vision operates.

“I want a better future for my brother,” Gautam says. “He sacrificed his hopes and dreams for us. Now it is his time to hope for a good future.”

Shyam attends the center as often as possible, but with a 10-hour workday, it’s difficult. So each day, he heads off to labor in a cramped room with other boys his age, silently accepting his fate of a life without education.

"I don’t think my desire for studying will get fulfilled,” Shyam says. “My heart tells me that I cannot become somebody big in life. This is my fate. But I don’t want this future for other children.”

“I pray to God that what I have been through, no other child has to go through it. My desire is that no child should work. If they have problems at home, they should try seeking counsel and contact someone, like World Vision, for help.”

*Name changed to protect the child’s identity and safety.

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Highlights

  • Shyam quit school at age 12 to help support his family.
  • His state in India has one of the country’s highest child labor rates, despite it being illegal to employ children.
  • He earns $17 a month, which allows his brothers to attend school while he works.
  • World Vision is working to send Shyam back to school, too.

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