Nearly every special moment in Chithra’s life—childhood, marriage, motherhood—was spent trapped on a farm under a slave owner’s watchful eye.
She was only 2 years old when her family moved to his farm to work off an $87 loan, and she was 7 when she was forced to begin working alongside the adults. Every day, she and her family toiled in the owner’s sugarcane fields, tended his herd of cows, and made countless bricks in his small kiln. She remembers the work as backbreaking and exhausting, as her hands were constantly torn by splinters and burned by hot bricks.
Worse was the daily violence and abuse of the slave owner and his henchmen. Chithra watched him beat her parents and relatives with his fists, feet and even sticks, and she remembers being punched repeatedly in the head for making mistakes. The owner also lobbied disgusting threats at them as they worked—degrading them and leaving them haunted by his words at night.
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Chithra eventually married a young man at the farm and was overjoyed to become pregnant, but the harsh work conditions led her to miscarry. She says, “I felt the world crashing down on me. I cried a lot, not able to bear the guilt of losing my dear baby. I was only two months pregnant, but I felt two years of pain.”
Later, Chithra managed to deliver a healthy baby boy at the farm, but she feared he would inherit her life of slavery. Their extended family attempted to escape several times, but the owner always harassed their relatives in other villages until he found his workers and brought them back. Their situation was so dire, one man later shared, “we decided to accept our fate and die here.”
But on May 7, 2018, the cries of Chithra’s family were finally heard: The local Released Bonded Labourers’ Association*—a network of women and men who survived modern slavery, like Chithra’s—brought her family’s case to the government for action. Authorities liberated all 17 children, women and men from the farm where Chithra had spent 20 years of her life. Officials provided them with release certificates to break their false debts to the owner and gave them funds to re-start life in freedom.
“On the day of rescue…I felt relieved, overjoyed and determined,” she says. “It was too emotional for me to describe in words.”
For the first time, Chithra can now live on her own terms She travels where she wants, cooks whatever she wants, and spends time with her family in peace. She’s excited to raise her son, Raja, with the experiences and education she never had, and dreams of him becoming the first doctor in the family—a whole new possibility now that they are free.