Women achievers in Chennai we bet you haven’t heard of!

They spent the best parts of their life toiling in brutal, inhuman conditions, as modern day slaves, right here in the city. But has it broken their spirit or zeal for life? No. This International Women's Day, we bring you the story of two women, rescued from bonded labour, who are rebuilding their lives with grit and courage.

Sitting in a tuition centre in Neelankarai, 21-year-old Rani (name changed) stammers as she reads meizhuthu (consonants) in Tamil. As the teacher pronounces the alphabet, the frail girl repeats it after her and tries to memorise it. She immerses herself in the effort, hoping she can shut out her recollections of childhood, filled with the stuff of nightmare for anyone, adult or child.

Forced to give up studies at an early age, Rani slogged for more than a decade at a rice mill in Red Hills. “No one including me knew it was slavery. We had accepted it as our fate,” says she.  Even as a child, she worked in the mill along with her parents to repay a small amount borrowed byher father. She would work for more than 13 hours sweeping and boiling the grains, with no time to eat or play. 

“Our existence remained unknown even to our relatives. We had not stepped out of our tiny houses in the mill for many years,” she recalls, “Even if I rested for a while, the owner would beat me up and abuse me badly. We never got paid for the work; all they gave us was some rice for our survival. I had not known anything except kanji (rice stew) during my childhood.”

Bonded labour in the metropolis

The tree cutting unit at Cowl Bazar near Chennai Airport. Credits: IJM

Bonded labour? In Chennai? If that’s your question, the answer is yes.

It is widely prevalent in tree cutting units, rice mills and brick kiln units in the city and its outskirts. Predictably, women bonded labourers are often the worst sufferers of the slavery system, abused sexually and verbally. A human rights organisation,  International Justice Mission (IJM) rescued four families constituting 16 women in a wood cutting unit at Kovalam on March 7th, just a day before the International Women’s day.

Regular instances of bonded labourers rescued and rehabilitated from the city shatter the myth that such practice is confined to rural areas. Their pasts are filled with horrific stories, but some like Rani, who got a second chance from the city, have successfully taken charge of their lives post rescue and emerged as role models for many.

Rani’s life changed course four years ago when revenue officials along with members from the International Justice Mission (IJM) rescued her family along with five others from the mill. The government compensated them with new houses and decent jobs.  Of the six girls rescued from the rice mill, Rani was the only one who did not want to be married.

The 21-year-old earns a decent amount today by making quilts, continues her education and is also learning to stitch. Her unhappy childhood has not made her a cynic. “My life was so dark that it frightened me. But I have the freedom to dream and work towards my goals now,” she says. Her aim is to start a clothing shop.

How do people respond to her hardship? “Those who don’t know my story mock me for studying primary school now. But once they know my past, they encourage me,” said Rani.

Living in fear

Cowl Bazar, a locality that is around six kilometres from Chennai airport is again infamous for bonded labour. Hailing from a village in Tindivanam, R Ammulu, a 31-year-old woman was working in a tree cutting unit in Cowl Bazar, along with her husband and four children. Having borrowed an amount of just Rs 1500, the family of six worked for five years under dire circumstances, to repay the money. Little did they realise that the money trap would cost their family years of honour, dignity and life itself. 

“Standing in the sewage water, filled with broken glasses, nails and plastic, we used to cut trees. My children would fall sick, but they were not allowed to take rest,” Ammulu says, fighting back the tears. The family received barely Rs 200 every week as wages, for working 15 hours a day. Ammulu was also sexually harrassed by the owner, on many occasions.

Even though the place where they worked was very close to city limits, the police never confronted the owner.  The owner worked with impunity, unmindful of the law concerning bonded labour.

The owner, in many instances had physically and verbally abused the children when they were seen taking rest. “My daughter was sleeping as she had fever. The inebriated owner burnt her hand and cursed her,” says Ammulu.

Such brutality instilled a mortal fear in Ammulu; she didn’t want to risk the children’s lives by fleeing from the workplace. Though there were police stations in the vicinity, she dared not complain. But during one of the inspections by revenue officials, the illegality was busted, resulting in a fresh lease of life for Ammulu and her family.

Happy endings

The experience during forced labour traumatises many workers so much that they do not know how to rebuild their lives for the better even when they get a chance. Social workers say many women prefer to lead life quietly, as homemakers. But Ammulu, like Rani, also eyes a better future.

R Ammulu is an independent woman now, as she cuts wood along with her husband for a living. Credits: IJM

Ammulu now does the same job of wood cutting, but she does not work under anyone. “We earn enough to educate my children and lead a dignified life. I would like to look back upon that harrowing episode as a lesson in my life,” said Ammulu.

“I lived the best part of my life following orders of my owner. It took me some time to take charge of my life. In cities like Chennai, there are many people and organisations to help us be brave,” says Rani.

“Women in bondage live in constant fear. They are stressed and vulnerable to exploitation. But once free and with a little support from the community and social workers, the same women can thrive. They are bold, fearless and ready to take on any challenge that comes their way,” said Sharon Jabez, Associate Director, Media & communications, IJM.

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