Soniya’s story reminds us of the deep devastation bonded labor can bring—but also of the resilience of the human spirit that slavery can never take away.
She had grown up in a rural village in Tamil Nadu as the eldest daughter of parents working as daily-wage laborers in tree cutting. She was able to study through 9th grade, but when her family faced new hardships, Soniya was forced to let go of her education to help make ends meet. She started working alongside her parents at a wood-cutting business when she was just 14 years old.
Soniya later met Saravanan, and they eloped to start a new life in Andhra Pradesh, the neighboring state. They soon became proud parents to two boys, Sarathy and Sathya. It was during this time that one of Saravanan’s cousins asked them to come back to Tamil Nadu and work in a rice mill. They moved there in 2015, and this is where their life took a turn.
Even though Saravanan’s cousin had been working at the kiln, the young family had no idea the conditions would be so intense.
Every day, they had to boil and process huge sacks of raw rice from dawn to dusk, all for measly wages that could barely keep them fed. Often, they just had one small meal per day or went to bed hungry. They were cut off from the outside world and could not visit local markets or work anywhere else for income.
The rice mill owner had given them an advance payment of 20,000 rupees to start work—and this was then used as a debt they had to repay through their labor. He continued to add charges to this debt, until it reached 50,000 rupees in 2019. He also used violence to keep them working, often beating them if they made mistakes, overslept, or rested during work hours.
In early 2019, Soniya discovered she was pregnant with another baby. She was overjoyed and dreamt of holding another bundle of joy soon—but also felt exhausted, nauseated, and fatigued most of the time. The owner did not spare her, though, and she was made to carry large sacks of rice paddy and empty them into the steaming soaking tanks just like the other laborers.
Violence and living conditions in the rice mill continued to deteriorate, until several laborers actually ran away in terror. Others managed to start seeking help in the village, which led them their case being reported to IJM.
After documenting the basic details of the abuse, IJM referred the case to the District Administration and the local Vigilance Committee, who had been trained to spot and combat bonded labor in Vellore district. On May 27, 2019, this team of government officials, police officers and IJM staff arrived at the rice mill to free the laborers and see the owner held accountable for his crimes. In total, fifteen people were freed from the rice mill: four men, five women, and six children.
On the day of rescue, Soniya and the others were taken for medical screenings, when the doctor discovered from a scan that her baby had died in her womb just a few days before. She had been about 5 months along. Soniya was distraught and remained in denial that her baby was gone.
IJM’s Barnabas Pravin, who has supported Soniya in aftercare, remembers, “Initially, Soniya was a very fearful person and would not trust anyone other than her husband. When she came to know that her child was stillborn, she became numb to her feelings and remained silent.”
(The news was especially painful considering their worksite was very near to a local primary care center—but the rice mill owner never let them go. Soniya reminisces saying that “If I would have had timely checkups, I could have saved my baby.”)
Barnabas and the team had to counsel Soniya and Saravanan deeply to understand the situation and help them make decisions for their family. She finally grew to accept the loss and went to the hospital for the care she needed. The surgery was emotional, but helped save Soniya’s life. IJM then continued to counsel the family and help them navigate grief as they were beginning to build a life outside the rice mill.
Local officials gave the survivors Release Certificates—which break their false debts to the rice mill owner—and also filed charges against this man for his crimes. IJM is also filing a separate damages claim as a civil case, to win compensation for Soniya for her devastating pregnancy loss and psychological abuse that resulted from being in bonded labor.
When the owner applied for bail, authorities checked with Soniya on how she’d feel, as per India’s laws against abusing Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (of which Soniya is a part). She courageously requested the powerful owner remain in jail, and he was kept there for several more weeks at her behest.
“She took a lot of effort to accept the reality and came back with such resilience,” Barnabas shares. “She rebounded from her tragedy and today is gearing up to be a spokesperson against the bonded labor system.”
IJM staff have recognized Soniya’s wisdom and leadership qualities and believe she will soon become a strong leader in the Released Bonded Laborers Association (RBLA). The family recently built a house closer to relatives in the state of Andhra Pradesh, and IJM will connect Soniya with the local chapter of the RBLA there (called Jeevana Jwala, meaning “Light of Life”).
Soniya and Saravanan have completed IJM’s two-year aftercare program and graduated in 2021 as “restored,” meaning they are functioning in society with reduced risk of re-exploitation. After thinking through her options, Soniya decided to open a jewelry shop in her village to support their income. They also welcomed a new baby girl—Sangeetha—this year, and look forward to educating all of their kids for a brighter future.
Soniya says, “Earlier I lived in hell, but right now I am at peace. I am not answerable to anyone, and no one can question me anymore. We are living a life that we love and cherish. I am so grateful to every government official and to the sirs who helped me live the life I now live.”