As a separated mother in middle-class New Delhi, Shobha Batra struggled to make ends meet. She worked as a nurse, helped run the family's kindergarten and spent hours cleaning, cooking and looking after her six-year-old. She needed someone to help out, but worried that a man in the house could be dangerous and a woman might bring home boyfriends. Far better, and cheaper, she decided, to buy a child.
Finding one wasn't difficult. She met Babita through a friend who had employed the child's mother. Babita's father, Parikshit, was happy to let her leave the family of eight's slum home for a few dollars and the offer of free clothes, food and board. The 10-year-old's mother, Janaki, was glad she would be going to school. "Batra said she would love my daughter like her own," says Janaki.
Hundreds of young girls are brought from distant villages in rural India or taken from nearby slums to work as maids in private homes each year. The children see no money: what little there is, their families claim. Walled off from the outside world, they are especially vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.
Three months after Babita's departure, her 14-year-old brother, Shekhar, watched Batra pull up outside the house in an auto-rickshaw, walk Babita to a bench, sit her down and leave. "I thought Babita had come home for a visit," says Shekhar. But when he walked over, he found Babita slumped, barely conscious. The right side of her head was so swollen it hung over her ear. Her body was covered in nail scratches and bruises. Her thumb was broken. Shekhar ran to fetch his mother, and they rushed Babita to a hospital, where a doctor diagnosed a severe concussion. Then, gathering a furious crowd of neighbors, the family went to the police. Faced with an angry mob, Batra and her brother were arrested after eyewitnesses confirmed that the child was abused and overworked, forced to do the cleaning for the household and kindergarten. If the little girl complained, she got a thrashing.
Out on bail after two weeks in prison and awaiting trial, Batra is distressed by her position, insisting she is innocent and that she was framed by jealous neighbors. "My life is over," she sobs. "People will always know I have been to jail. Now my husband will definitely ask for a divorce. Who could have thought these poor people, living in a slum, would have dared to file charges against us?" The accusations against her, of violent fits of fury directed against Babita, have ignited a controversy over the use of child servants. "This is modern slavery," says Kailash Satyarthi of the Save Childhood Movement, "It's a fallout of the expanding middle class where working couples need reliable servants." Too many of whom view children in their powerlessness as the no-risk option. All the risk is taken by the children. Parikshit, meanwhile, is looking for another employer for his daughter.