Chandramma’s Story Of Escaping From Bonded Labour Shows Us What A Long Way We Have To Go

An expert silk weaver, Chandramma’s quest for livelihood led her to being a bonded labourer. Nonetheless, she is determined to build herself and her children a better future.

An expert silk weaver, Chandramma’s quest for livelihood led her to being a bonded labourer. Nonetheless, she is determined to build herself and her children a better future.

Chandramma joined her family in the sericulture trade when she was barely 8 years old. Now, two decades later, 32-year old Chandramma is an expert at the intricate processes of silk making.

Though she worked at various sericulture units over the years, the last stint of 6 months at the unit in Sidlaghatta (a small town in Karnataka) was the most traumatic experience she has had. She and her four-year-old son were locked up with no access to proper food, water or hygiene facilities. She worked long hours with no proper wages, and moreover, was physically abused by the owner of the silk unit.  

Chandramma was officially declared a “free woman” by the government when she was rescued in February 2019. She now lives in her village and is open to exploring different employment options. “I don’t want to go back to working in a sericulture unit ever again,” says Chandramma with a laugh. She is looking forward to weaving the colourful threads of life in freedom into something beautiful and sustainable for herself and her two sons.

On International Women’s Day, we honour the courage of women like Chandramma who have fought unimaginable hardships, but refuse to give up.

What seemed like a better job, was hell in reality

The year her mother died, Chandramma was 24 years old. Though she managed to support herself and her son by short-lived jobs at various sericulture units, things were difficult. She decided to take her family’s advice and got married again. Her son Hemanth, who is about four years old now, was born two years later and Chandramma says, “I was almost getting comfortable with how my life was shaping up, until something unexpected happened again.”

Hearing of the better pay and a chance to strengthen their financial situations early in 2018, Chandramma and her sister took up a job at a sericulture unit in Sidlaghatta in Chikkaballapur district. They took the advances of Rs. 50,000 each, which were offered by the men recruiting the workers and travelled to the unit.

“We were totally unprepared for the events that followed our decision to take up this work,” Chandramma exclaims. The work was familiar but the appalling living conditions, the treatment by the owner, the lack of facilities and the fact that they were not paid at all were all first-time experiences for them.

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She narrates how she and her son Hemanth were kept locked up in a small room for almost six months to prevent them from escaping. They were given food only twice a day and had to spend the night with just two litres of water in a bottle every night. “We were expected to use that water to drink, to bathe and for hygiene purposes as well. It was not enough and very soon, my son and I broke out in a severe allergic rash and infection due to the lack of sanitation. Our bodies were covered in boils and though we pleaded to be let out, our cries fell on deaf ears.”

“Things got so desperate that I even contemplated ending my life,” she says quietly.

Finally, a ray of light

It was six months of unimaginable torture for Chandramma as a bonded labourer at the Sidlaghatta sericulture unit. She tried to escape twice, but was caught, brought back and beaten up. It was only the thought of her son Hemanth that prevented her from any extreme action. The first ray of hope came after her sister Girijamma managed to escape from the unit. She knew her sister would not rest until she found the help they needed.

“My family, especially my sisters, have been my support and have stood by me through all the ups and downs of my life,” says Chandramma confidently. Girijamma and her husband who had also travelled to the Sidlaghatta unit were driven to seek help to guarantee Chandramma was rescued. Their enquiries and explorations led them to a field worker from International Justice Mission who heard the details of Chandramma’s situation and assured them that the government could rescue her.

On the day of the rescue in February 2019, Chandramma suddenly heard a commotion outside the room where she and Hemanth were locked in. Her sister’s voice calling her name aloud sounded like music to her ears.

“I was afraid to believe it was my sister…but she kept calling out, so I answered softly at first and then insistently.”

In a few minutes she heard a lot of other voices and the door was unlatched. A stream of policemen, some government officials, people with TV cameras and reporters from some newspapers came in and asked her several questions. “I answered whatever I could through the tears choking me,” Chandramma says.

A detailed enquiry was conducted at the police station in Chikkaballabur and a Release Certificate was issued to her the next day at the AC’s office.  She was also handed over the initial rehabilitation cheque for Rs. 20,000 at the DC’s office 2 weeks later.

Chandramma was officially declared a “free woman” by the government – free to live where she now wants to; free to pursue a livelihood of her choice; free to give her sons the kind of life she herself could not have. Chandramma had another setback with the recent death of her husband, which she has faced and accepted resolutely.

Chandramma with her sons Venu and Hemanth

“I am done with that life and hope to find a different working opportunity. My kidney surgeries make it difficult to stand for long hours, but I am hopeful that I will be able to make a decent living to support myself and my two sons,” Chandramma says with her characteristic strength and resilience. Much like the silk threads she knows so well.

Images provided by the International Justice Mission

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