CHENNAI, INDIA – In a shocking rescue at a thread-making factory in Southern India, thirty-five girls between 14 and 18 years old were set free from slavery last week. Many had been trafficked from faraway states—forced to live and work nearly 2,000 miles away from their families. Ten men were also rescued from the factory.
A Fight for Freedom
Earlier this year, the families of two girls who were trapped in the factory helped them escape. They knew there were many more held in slavery, so the families sought help from Jan Jagriti Kendra (JJK), an anti-slavery organization and one of IJM's partners working in central India. JJK investigated the claims and called IJM for assistance.
On Monday, October 14, a team of IJM and JJK staff, along with police from the central Indian state where JJK had first discovered the case, presented the evidence to a high-level district authority. He ordered the operation to take place right away under the direction of another local official.
As soon as the rescue team entered the factory, flanked by police from two different states, it was clear the girls inside wanted to get out. It was also clear that freedom would not come without a struggle.
The girls gathered their few belongings, and the IJM and JJK staff helped them board a bus. Then, out of nowhere, a mob started to form. Suddenly, the factory managers were joined by dozens of men surrounding the bus. They did not want the slaves to leave.
The violence quickly escalated. "Threats came in from all sides," said one IJM staff member, "and the girls began to hold onto me in desperation." One young girl pleaded with IJM staff, saying urgently, "Please don't leave us here, they will kill us!" In an instant, a pregnant woman was yanked off the truck. Another young woman passed out after she was dragged from the truck and hit her head. IJM's National Director of Interventions, Anu George, responded immediately to give her CPR.
Thanks to relentless advocacy from both IJM and JJK staff, the official finally gave the order for the bus to leave the volatile scene and conduct the formal interview process off-site. All of the slaves were brought out safely.
Stories of Slavery
Away from the frightening factory, they shared a meal of rice and curries. They were quiet as they ate in small groups; they did not yet dare to believe that this freedom would last. It was getting late, and the government official oversees the interview process was not available until the following day.
Running on a few hours of sleep that had been taken in shifts, the IJM and JJK staff prepared tables and chairs for the official interview process. The government officials showed up and started recording the stories that illustrated a very bleak and very real picture of slavery.
Some of the girls had been trapped there for four years—without pay. One girl shared how they were denied medical treatment—and in fact beaten if they ever got sick. One young woman was suffering from chronic pain; because she was barred from going to the hospital, a foot wound had developed into gangrene. Many gave examples of physical and verbal abuse, and some women told how they were assaulted when they were sleeping or even going to the bathroom.
The girls worked 13-hour days spinning cotton into thread. Girls who should have been in school instead became nimble experts at this incredibly tedious work. The factory became the only life they knew; one girl said they sometimes got to go to the market, but only under the watchful eye of a factory warden. She added, "We are locked inside the facility after work."
A Powerful Moment of Rescue
By Tuesday evening, the government officials were finally ready to issue release certificates to every single girl, as well as the ten men who had been forced to work alongside them. These legal documents emancipate them from the owner's control and entitle them to certain benefits, including a sizeable monetary compensation from the government.
JJK staff accompanied the girls from their state home on the train, and IJM will work with partners in the other states where the girls are from to make sure they have long-term aftercare support. Two IJM staff flew to the northern state of Assam, some 2,000 miles away, to make sure the girls were able to get home safely.
Before they left, IJM's Anu George said "A girl walked up to me and said that she owes me her life, and that she would never forget me. I smiled and moved on, caught up in the busyness of the moment—but not before I almost tripped on her entire family who was at my feet to honor me with thanks." The family lived nearby and had come to collect their daughter. The moment was a powerful reminder for Anu, who added: "It struck me how much the rescue meant to her whole family. They finally had their freedom. They finally had their daughter."