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A personal reflection of the Southern India Hotspot

December 24, 2015

Kathleen Brenninkmeijer is an intern at C&A Foundation, an investor in the Freedom Fund’s Southern India hotspot.

I traveled with the Freedom Fund and C&A Foundation to Tamil Nadu, where we joined local organisations working to end bonded and child labor in spinning mills in the state. The NGOs are part of a hotspot program supported by both organisations.

As it was my first visit to India, I knew very little of what to expect and was quite anxious about how we were going to converse, due to language barriers, with the adolescent girls in the villages. Each visit began with elaborate welcoming ceremonies during which men beat on drums while women danced around them. We were decorated in jasmine flower garlands, which were still damp and heavy around our necks. Children gathered around us as we bent down to receive the bindi dotted onto our foreheads. I caught myself wondering, “Here we are to learn about the reality of a terrible situation, forced and bonded labour, that many girls are faced with. How is it that everyone can be so cheerful?”

We spent the majority of each visit sitting with the adolescent girls listening to them discuss the conditions in which they work, their monthly wage, their opinions of the management and what they would rather do instead. The stories in each village were the same – all were being paid much below minimum daily wage, earning less than €2.80. While some were in school, the majority were not and instead the girls were working to contribute to the family income.

During our visit to Elanthakuttai village, where the local NGO partner has recently started to work, we sat with a group of 50 girls aged 10 to 18, of which 40% currently work in spinning mills. We asked how many attended school – only 4 hands went up. The next question, “How many of you would like to go to school?” – all 50 hands shot up. I felt a sudden pang, feeling guilty of how much I take for granted. The girls shared stories about some of the tactics they had experienced by some mill managers to raise productivity and minimise absenteeism. In one factory, they said that workers were given unbearably spicy food to reduce intake and increase alertness. Malnutrition, mental and physical fatigue, and problems related to menstruation cycle are just some of the health disorders found among female workers in spinning mills.

Although it was tremendously heartbreaking to hear stories of pain, poor health, abuse and helplessness from girls as young as 13, I am convinced by their motivation to empower themselves and their communities. The hotspot program is addressing some of the challenges we heard about by working with NGO partners in nearly 400 villages, while mobilising government to implement workers rights and protections, and working with local and international businesses to fight against bonded labour in the supply chain.

Image: School students in Varapalayam village where, with help from Freedom Fund NGO partner, CEEMA, the girls had organised a street theatre performance about ending child labour.

Written by
Kathleen Brenninkmeijer