Reclaiming Childhood


In the West, many arguments are presented to justify the use of child labour in developing countries: the families will starve if the children don’t work, the children get their dignity from working, it is part of their culture. But inevitably, the contrast with our own children - children walking to school, playing in the park, enjoying childhood - is striking. How can something so unacceptable for a child born in the UK be acceptable for one born in India?

Aware that she could not impose western ideals on other cultures, Claire Phillips decided to ask the child labourers directly. Facilitated by the Indian charity, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) she researched, interviewed, sketched and photographed children who have been rescued from factories, brick works, mining, domestic service and embroidery works.

In 2011, and again in 2012, Claire visited BBA to see their work first hand and meet the children rescued from desperate slave labour conditions. Most become victims of trafficking after their parents are conned into believing that their children will have an education and a better future. The parents never see their children again.  

Boys as young as 9 years old recounted to Claire how they had lived and worked in terrible conditions for 14 hours a day in return for 2 bowls of rice a day. Some described being beaten if they fell asleep and beaten more if they cried.

The older children explained that the rescued children are the lucky ones – they have so much hope for the future as they return to education, some even studying to degree level. Many choose to work rescuing other children like themselves and campaigning against the use of child labour. Others travel around remote villages educating parents about the tactics of traffickers and enabling villagers to claim their legal rights to schools and clean water.

Through these paintings Claire shows the very nature of the child – playful, mischievous, innocent and vulnerable. The children represented in these portraits* are reclaiming their childhood from conditions that no adult should endure, let alone a child of 9 or 10 years old. The gentle nature of the portraits is juxtaposed against the stories of their experience told from their own words and soundtracks from the journey to meet them.  

For more information on Bachpan Bachao Andolan please visit

* Names may have been changed to protect the identity of those depicted