Cover Story

Let my people go

"Let my people go" Continued...

Issue: "'Into captivity they shall go'," Feb. 24, 2007

Freeing slaves is one hurdle abolitionists have to clear, but keeping them free is another. Sivakasi is a city in India's southeastern state of Tamil Nadu, dubbed "Little Japan" for its matchstick, fireworks, and printing industries. Behind factory doors, however, are thousands of bonded child workers, making the city one of India's worst slavery hubs.

Most of India's bonded slaves are "untouchables"-Hinduism's outcasts now more charitably known as Dalits, or the "downtrodden." Dalits are desperately poor, and so most at risk for becoming enslaved.

The Dalit Freedom Network (DFN), an advocacy and charitable group, helps run a network of schools for Dalit children and, in Sivakasi, the students come from surrounding cottage factories.

They come, but not always regularly. Twelve-year-old Manjula is one such student. At first, her parents often pulled her from school to work in the factory, desperate for the extra cents a day she earned. Manjula began working with her parents at their local matchstick factory when she was 4.

The adults usually prepare the dangerous chemicals for the match heads-chlorates, phosphorus, and sulphur-and cut the sticks to size. The children work separately, typically in a 300-square-foot workroom lit dimly by a small, high window. The only ventilation is a concrete grille in the wall.

Though owners bribe local police to look away, the window's strategic placement prevents passersby from looking in, since India bans children under 14 from working. The children sit in rows, peering at their matchsticks. They dip each in sulfur, lay it to dry-often on a newspaper-then place it in a match box. Dip, dry, dip, dry, goes the work, for 12 hours or more at a stretch. If the children meet the quota, they get less than $1. More reliably, they get chronic bronchitis and allergic skin rashes.

Manjula worked seven years in a matchstick factory and now labors to breathe sometimes. The school's teachers cajoled her parents to let her stay in school, though her younger sister still has to work. Manjula had to start at kindergarten level, having never learned the alphabet or how to count.

When students like her miss class, teachers visit their parents and coax them into returning. More students skip school during the seasonal Hindu festivals, when demand for fireworks and matches is high. Sivakasi supplies three-quarters of India's matches and almost all its fireworks.

Persuasion on the benefits of education doesn't always work, said Albert Lael, national director of Dalit education for Operation Mercy Charitable Company, a partner with DFN. "The problem is [families] want their immediate needs met," he said. "[There's] a long way to go because they don't see the benefit they get in the long run." Many Dalits have been slaves so long, they think only like slaves. Ask them what they want to do with their future, and they often name menial jobs.

Lael has loftier hopes. A Dalit himself, he sees the children and remembers his grandfather's plight "was exactly like the kids in Sivakasi." Canadian missionaries educated his family, and Lael now holds an MBA. But pulling other Dalits alongside him can be hard labor with few compensations, too.

DFN schools know to compromise. The parents of one student, 11-year-old Shiva, let him attend for seven years only because he also continues to work. So when school is out at 3 p.m., he dips and packs matches for another 12 hours. Exhausted, he struggles to do his homework and keep up. But school is a haven: fresh air and playtime, sports and lessons.

For years Afghan women have suffered under a slave system actually sanctioned in customary law called baad. Under baad, a family offers a daughter in marriage as a debt payment or as restitution for a crime. Womankind, a British nonprofit, reported last year that between 60 percent and 80 percent of Afghan marriages are forced. More than half of Afghan women marry before age 16, and some as young as 6.

Two seasons of drought and a bad winter mean Afghan families have turned more desperate in the last two years, with reports of some selling their daughters to feed their other children. In Helmand Province, which produces most of Afghanistan's opium crop, some farmers cannot repay drug smugglers for loans to plant opium. So they turn to trading in women instead. Last November, the UN reports, a 25-year-old woman who had been traded for an opium debt turned an AK-47 on herself after suffering daily beatings from her husband.

Other bonded women who commit suicide, however, set themselves on fire. Medica Mondiale, a German group that helps women in conflict zones, found hundreds of cases of self-immolation in Afghanistan. Among some survivors, the group's workers found women lying in hospital scarred and screaming with pain.

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