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Globalization

Indonesia's child jockeys labor away

At what point does cultural heritage become child labor? Child jockeys in Indonesia are finding out firsthand. On the island of Sumba, parental pressure is turning unwitting four-year-olds into family breadwinners.

Ade slips on a balaclava and then dons a helmet as he gears up for his next race. He may only be seven years old, but that doesn't stop him from being a professional jockey.

He also bears the marks of the occupation: a black eye from recently falling off a horse. Still, he doesn't put on shoes as he gets ready for the next competition. Child jockeys don't wear them while racing.

"He has been working as a professional jockey since he was four years old," his father tells DW. "We started teaching him when he was three and a half. Now he is seven, and a good rider."

A man comes over and asks if Ade can be his jockey, grabbing the boy by the arm and saying, "I want to use you." The man says he's chosen Ade because he is small.

Ade's father helps his son clamber onto the short, one-and-a-half meter horse. It's the first time Ade will be riding this particular horse and he'll be riding it bareback.

In a picture taken from above, a grop of Indonesian children wearing colorful t-shirts sit on the grass. (Photo: Rebecca Henschke / DW)

A recent competition in Sumba lasted 11 days and attracted nearly 600 jockeys and horses

The race begins. It's a clear, beautiful day on the island of Sumba in southern Indonesia. Ade circles the track, clinging to the horse's mane as he guides the animal around the bend. He takes second place as he comes across the finish line.

"I'm tired," Ade says. It's his third race of the day, and his father picks him up and carries him across the field. His father is pleased, as Ade has just earned about 50,000 rupiah, or roughly $5 (3.80 euros).

Child labor

It is illegal for children under the age of 15 to work in Indonesia. But Ade and his nine-year-old brother, Enid, are the family breadwinners.

Horse-racing event organizer Umbu Tamba argues they're doing nothing wrong. "This is a tradition that has been passed down from our ancestors, so we are not breaking the law," he says.

Tamda himself was a jockey as a child, he says. Even though he fell off horses many times, he never got hurt. And, he adds, children aren't forced to race.

"Whoever says that is just trying to be provocative and stir up trouble," he said. "No child is forced to be a jockey here."

Ade's mother does view horse racing as her sons' jobs, though.Ade has an older brother - nine-year-old Enid - who also competes.

"The boys understand that this is their work," she told DW. "When the teacher asks them, 'Why do you keeping missing school to race horses?' they answer, 'Who would look after my mum and feed our other brothers and sisters if we didn't?'

After seven days at the races, Ade's mother says, the family can take home approximately $1,000. The minimum wage in Indonesia is just $50 per week.

A young Indonesian boy wearing orange clothing supports himself on a beige metal gate while holding a brown-beige helmet. (Photo: Rebecca Henschke / DW)

Racing horses lends a sense of prestige to an Indonesian family

"If the races happen when school is on, we ask for permission from the teachers to excuse them because they have bosses here who want them to race," she says.

Hospital visits

After lunch, Ade mounts a new horse. As he passes the grandstand, his horse takes a sharp turn and bolts toward a closed gate, rears up, and throws Ade off.

He seems to have hurt his leg. Will they be going to the hospital?

"We never take them to the hospital," his mother says. "If the leg is broken, we have to use local medicine." She fears the doctors would just amputate Ade's legs, and because her family is poor, she says, she worries about the bill. "If [the boys] go into the hospital, they will certainly ask us for money and we don't have any money."

But, this time around, Ade's legs are only bruised. His father has seen worse.

"We are used to it," he says. "There have been times when they have broken their legs." Both legs? "Both legs were broken," he confirms.

Dr. Gidion Mbilijora, the local leader of this region of Sumba, also views child jockeys as a part of the country's cultural identity and heritage. "Yes, there are jockeys who are four and five," he tells DW. "But this falls in the category of local tradition."

Were child jockeys to be outlawed, the leader says, he would be swamped by protests. "The earnings from horse-racing are a key part of the local economy," he said.

In a close-up of his face, a young Indonesian boy with dark hair and brown eyes smiles lopsidedly at the camera. (Photo: Rebecca Henschke / DW)

But would he have chosen horse racing on his own?

Back at the races, another horse owner comes over and tries to get Ade to ride again. But he refuses for the first time. He looks exhausted and cuddles up to his uncle.

"I've had enough," he says.

When he gets older, Ade will have to find another job. Jockeys need to be lightweight. He wants to be an army officer, fire a gun, use a weapon, he says, punctuating that with a "Pow! Pow! Pow!" His father, worried his kids will ask where the money went, has invested it in cattle and a house - and has set money aside for high school and university fees.

As the day of racing comes to a close, Ade runs around the middle of the empty field, trying to catch crickets. Other child jockeys break out into a dance.

Now, they are free to be children. At least, until tomorrow.

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