In the remote eastern part of Indonesia, children as young as four or five work as professional child jockeys. On the island of Sumba, famous for its horses, racing festivals are recently held.
Earlier this month, a race in the east of the island lasted 11 days and attracted nearly 600 horses.
And all the jockeys were under 11 years old…
I meet one of them, 7-year-old Ade... who comes below my waist.
He’s putting on a balaclava so I can now just see his eyes and mouth. He’s also wearing a small helmet and no shoes.
He has a black eye from when he fell off a horse and he has been doing this job since he was four.
Ade doesn’t own a horse. So he is here hoping someone will hire him as their jockey.
A man has just come over and asked if Ade can be his jockey. He just grabbed him by the arm and said “I want to use him, I want to use him” and his Dad say yeah.
The horses here are small, around 1.5 metres high. But even so, Ade’s Dad has to help him climb on a bare-back horse that he has never ridden before.
“He has been working as a professional jockey since he was four years old…” says Ade’s Dadd. “We started teaching him when he was three and half years old…now he is seven and is a good rider.”
And they are off…
“How much did you get that time?” I ask. “50,000 rupiah again…” says the father.
That’s around five US dollars for each race Ade rides… He has done three laps now.
After the race, Ade’s dad has picked him up and is carrying him across because he is very tired.
“If he is strong enough he will just keep going. He will race on more than 10 different horses in different races. If he has enough energy, he will just keep going but if he is tired he takes a rest.”
Ade and his 9-year-old brother Enid – who is also a jockey - are the family breadwinners, says their mother.
“We can take home around 15 million or 10 million rupiah after being here for seven days at the races…” says his mother.
That’s around one thousand dollars for a week’s work… the minimum wage in Indonesia is just 50 dollars a week.
“If the races happen when school is on, we ask for permission from the teachers to pull them out of school because they have bosses here who want them to race.”
“Isn’t that a problem?” I ask.
“The boys understand that this is their work. When the teacher asks them why you keep missing school to race horses… He answers: ‘Who would look after my mum and feed my younger brothers and sisters if I didn’t?’”
It is illegal for children under the age of 15 to work in Indonesia. And by law children must be 18 before they can do hazardous jobs. But the event organizer Umbu Tamba says his races abide by the law.
“This is a tradition that has been passed down from our ancestors so we are not breaking the law,” he says.
“How is this not breaking the law?” I ask again.
“Because this is a tradition. Traditional law has to exist alongside the state law. I was a jockey when I was a child and I fell off many times and I am fine. I didn’t get hurt either.”
“Some people would say that the children are being forced to do this and it’s not right to treat children in this way?” I ask.
“Whoever says that is just trying to be provocative and cause trouble. No child is forced to be a jockey here. Yes it’s true that according to national law children under age are not allowed to work but this is our culture heritage. They aren’t doing this for free either. Even though there is no official price that has to be paid to the jockeys we care about them and we respect them and the job they do.”
It’s lunch time and the family sit down in the grass in the middle of the track…
His uncle wants to talk tactics…telling him…”you got to keep the left rein tight around the bend” But Ade isn’t listening….He is busy boasting about how many races he has won already to the crowd of boys around him.
“ I won three times....and came second twice... yeah I won three times, not two times dad!"
Ade starts pulling his father… telling him he is hungry.
His mother rushes over with beef sticks in peanut sauce, noodles and rice….
Ade eats first…. His mother and father eat what is left over.
“I have bought cows and am building a house for them,” says his mother. “I am worried that when they get older they will ask me ‘where is the money that I earned?’. So that’s why I have bought cattle for them and am building them a house and if they want to go high school or university there will be money for that.”
Ade will have to do a different job when he turns 15… and he already has some ideas.
“I want to be an army officer…(laughter).. I want to fire a gun …I want to use a weapon…. Pow…Pow…pow….”
With lunch over, it’s time to race again.
Ade mounts a new horse…and as it passes the stadium it takes a sharp turn and bolts off the field towards the entrance gate…
The gate is closed and the horse rears up throwing Ade off the horse…..
His mum rushes over to him….. at first I think she is kissing him on the head… But later I am told she is blowing the evil spirits away… he seems to have hurt his leg…
I ask her if they will take him to hospital…
“No we never take them to hospital….if the leg is broken we have to use local medicine… At the hospital, if they cannot heal the leg then they will straight away cut it off… that’s what hospital people do…but that’s not our way.
Ade pulls himself up... He can walk…. This time he has just bruised his legs….
I ask his father if he is afraid to let him ride again.
“We are used to it…This is our tradition…and way of life…so we don’t have a feeling of being scared or worried anymore….
His father explains that Ade has fallen several times and had broken his bones and legs.
“The more pain he feels, the braver he becomes,” he says.
But better safety conditions for child jockeys are actually something the local government has been looking into.
Gidion Mbilijora is the regency head of East Sumba.
“I have asked the organizers to pay more attention to the children’s safety and also told them they must pay the jockeys a decent fee.”
Q. But according to Indonesian law, getting children under the age of 15 to work is against the law. And here you have children as young as four and five working as jockeys…
“Yes there are jockeys who are four and five (laughs) and yes that’s right there is that law but this falls in the category of local tradition….The government has to view this as part of cultural identity and tradition.“
Q. I have met with children who have fallen off horses and broken their legs and split their heads open…what would you do if the central government insisted that this has to end?
“If it was outlawed it would make things very difficult for me…I would be swapped by protests from my community… Because the earnings from the horse racing are a key part of the local economy. Farmers incomes go up when there is a horse race on.”
Back at the race, another horse owner comes over and tries to get Ade to ride again. But for the first time, he refuses … he looks exhausted and cuddles up to his uncle.
“ I have had enough….” Ade says.
The day of racing comes to a close…. Ade runs around the empty field trying to catch crickets…
While some of the other child jockeys break-out in a dance… Now they are free to be children….at least until tomorrow.
“It was painful but I thought of my mother and sister who walk around whole day in heels. They do everything and never complain. That gave me strength. I salute them,” he said.
The Walk titled “Walk India in Her Shoes” is the Indian version of the Walk a mile in her shoes- a global campaign seeking to raise awareness about violence against women.
The idea of holding the event in India caught the imagination of Footwear designer Swati Mehrotra.
“Heels represent both our pain and pleasure and I thought making men wear heels and live the experiences of a woman for a few moments was a good way to make them understand the pain of being a woman in an unequal society,” she said.
Besides walking in heels the participants were made to do other things that are considered to be a woman’s job-like shopping and babysitting.
Later, in a group discussion they all shared their understanding and ideas of gender equality.
Among those cheering for the walkers, was personality development mentor Rita Gangwani.
“They will definitely understand the positions of a woman, how many roles she has to play, how difficult it is for her and how she maintains the balance while playing all these roles. And if they understand this they will automatically realize how important it is for her to be treated equally,” she said.
The Organisers are planning to hold the event in several other cities in the coming months.
They also intend to follow it with a similar campaign highlighting the issues concerning men.
Footwear designer Swati Mehrotra says maintaining the balance is the key to make the campaign successful.
“The life of men also isn’t that easy and women need to understand that so what we will do is we will make women live like men for a day and feel the pressures and problems they go through. I think that makes more sense and helps understand the question of gender equally much better,” she said.
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