Independent Appeal: Modern face of slavery
They are lured by the promise of money and training, but end up as domestic workers who endure abuse and beatings at the hands of their masters.
Tuesday 23 December 2008
She came to Delhi dreaming of a new start, of escape from a life of poverty and hardship. Yet when she arrived, Sushma Kumari quickly realised she had been tricked.
Far from being trained in the skills of acupuncture, for two years she was forced to work as an unpaid domestic help in the home of the "doctor" supposed to be teaching her. She toiled from 5am to midnight, seven days a week. She was abused and mistreated. Almost certainly she was brought to Delhi by a professional trafficker; what is beyond doubt is that once she got here she lived the life of slave.
For a woman who has the right to burn with anger, Sushma talks in little more than a whisper. "I really wanted to go home but I was not allowed to talk to my father," she says. "I felt desperate, cheated."
The story of Sushma is a journey to the dark side of the new India, away from the tales of soaring economic growth and gleaming fashion malls, of Western-style coffee-shops filled with a newly wealthy class. The two are surely connected; chief among the reasons for the growing demand for young, poor women from places like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and other desperately poor states to come to toil in India's growing metropolitan centres, is that a new generation of professional women entering the workforce no longer have the time or inclination for household chores. Human traffickers fill the gap.
And in a way, Sushma had been drawn by the promises of the New India. After she was forced to leave school early because the family were so poor, her father learnt, through an acquaintance, of an acupuncturist in Delhi looking for a trainee. A middle-man arranged that Sushma could be that person.
"When we left the village, we were taken to another village for a month and then brought to Delhi. In the first weeks there was some informal training but it became obvious we were there to work as domestic servants," she recalls. "After that, we just had to work. When my father called I was told to say everything was fine and that I was doing well."
The reality was quite different. Beaten and abused, accused of stealing and worked to the bone, Sushma wanted to escape but did not know how. She suffered for two years before learning, through another domestic worker, of an organisation that could help. Then she ran away.
The treatment of India's domestic workers is a topic the establishment rarely addresses. Relied upon to cook, clean, shop, wash and iron clothes and even nanny children, they become indispensable for many families. Yet while some employers treat them well, many are remarkably cruel. Stories of abuse abound. Last month, a badly beaten 13-year-old girl was rescued from the home of a professional couple in Gurgaon, Delhi's hi-tech satellite city. The couple told police they beat the child to get rid of their stress.
The charity Sushma ran to for help is called Nirmana. Established 12 years ago, the group uses trained overseas volunteers from a partner organisation, Voluntary Services Overseas, one of the charities being supported in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. One of the volunteers working with Nirmana is 25-year-old Serena O'Sullivan.
Serena worked for a FTSE 100 company for a year after leaving university but decided she wanted to do something more fulfilling. After working for several charities, she became convinced that governments in poor countries needed to be pressed to include the poorest people in their programmes. "It led me to accept a VSO placement in India with Nirmana. I am able to share my skills in communications and advocacy, but also spend time with rescued workers and help to get their voices heard at a national and international level.
"It is very hard to reconcile your own life and those of the people here. You hear the worst stories you can imagine. You wonder how one person can treat another person like that," she says. "It is as if some people here think that others are not deserving of the same rights."
The scale of the problem Nirmana is trying to deal with is vast. A full 40 per cent of the people involved in domestic work are below the age of 14. And the number of people being trafficked is growing. The agencies which place them are unregulated and unsupervised.
But slowly the country is being forced for the first time to consider the problem. The work of Nirmana and VSO is one factor. Another has been the publication of Aravind Adiga's novel White Tiger, which won this year's Booker Prize with its account of the abuse and mistreatment of servants. Some abused servants are summoning the courage to speak out.
One such is 17-year-old Meena Tirki. Meena says she is 17 but she could be younger. Though Meena tries to smile as she tells her story, her face is impossibly sad. And with good reason. The eldest of four girls from a village near Siliguri in West Bengal, Meena's family could never afford to send her to school. Earlier this year, an agent came to her village looking for girls who wanted to work in Delhi.
Under pressure from her step-mother, Meena agreed. Placed with a family in East Delhi, Meena found herself sleeping on the roof during the blistering summer, rising at 5am to begin a day of exhausting labour. The family said they would not pay her and the abuse began almost immediately. "The husband would hit me. He would accuse me of not working," she says. But Meena heard about Nirmana and she also ran.
With the help of Nirmana, Meena and Sushma have since been placed with other families in Delhi where they are working as domestic help. It would be a lie to say their stories have a saccharine-sweet ending. While they are now being paid, they receive only a pittance – less than £30 a month – and they still work gruelling hours.
But there is the vaguest flicker of hope. Sushma has been attending an open school in Delhi and hopes to complete her exams in April. She says: "Then I will decide whether to go home or not." She has begun to take control of her life.
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