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Sustained Restoration: Kasthuri, Venkatesh and Shakthivel Thriving in Freedom

As we combat violence around the world, IJM’s global aftercare teams are committed to helping survivors overcome their trauma and begin flourishing again in freedom.

In India, survivors of bonded labor are invited into a two-year aftercare program focused on their physical and mental rehabilitation and setting them up with stabilizing life skills. Generally, more than 85% of survivors graduate this program as Restored—meaning they can function independently in society with a reduced risk of re-trafficking.[1]

One year after a survivor achieves restoration, IJM revisits them to assess their Sustained Restoration—essentially whether they are continuing to thrive without our support.

Recently, IJM staff in Chennai revisited a survivor named Kasthuri to see how her life is today and what Sustained Restoration means for her family.

Exploited for Four Years

Kasthuri and her husband, Venkatesh, had fallen into bonded labor after they took a loan of 95,000 rupees (about $1,200 USD) from a local business owner to pay for their daughter’s wedding. In order to repay it, they had to sell their land and then go work in the man’s brick kiln along with their youngest son, Shakthivel.

For the next four years, the kiln owner used this ever-growing debt to keep the family trapped and working for his profit. Their back-breaking work molding bricks ran from 2:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. every day, with no days off. The owner gave them just 500 rupees a week for supplies (about $6), which often meant the family starved without enough to buy food. Kasthuri remembers, "There were times when I sent my son to bed with a stomach full of just water instead of food, because we didn't have enough."

After years of suppression and threats, the family was finally rescued by government officials and IJM on March 2, 2018. They shared their experience boldly with local officials and even with local media as well. Local authorities equipped them with Release Certificates and short-term services until they were able to return to their home village.

Life was not necessarily easy in the first months of freedom. Upon returning to their village, Kasthuri and Venkatesh found their old home collapsed and in disrepair. Relatives took them in during those early days, and the family started to rebuild life in freedom with optimism about what was to come.

Regaining Confidence Through Aftercare

As part of the two-year aftercare program, IJM staff met regularly with Kasthuri’s family to counsel them along their journey of recovery. The team could immediately see how grateful and motivated they were, even though they had experienced such intense trauma.

Read more about aftercare and the survivor-led movement.

Within the first few months, the family was invited to an IJM Freedom Training for newly rescued survivors. Here they learned about their legal rights, local support systems, economic opportunities, and healthcare available to them in the community.

From there, they met with their caseworker monthly to get one-on-one help and psycho-social support. IJM helped them register for ID cards and get funding owed to bonded labor survivors from the Indian government, which they used to build a new home.

Finding steady and dignified work was a major milestone for helping the family build a foundation. Venkatesh was able to make contacts and start daily-wage work as a woodcutter, and Kasthuri would help him when she was not taking care of the home. With a steady income, she shared, “We are able to cook enough and nutritious meals now, which is a welcome change from the watery rice gruel that we ate at the kiln.”

As they progressed through the program, aftercare staff helped them overcome several unique challenges or aspirations:

  • Even after the rescue operation, the family remained fearful of the brick kiln owner and often stayed home because they were afraid. They still felt obligated to this man and to repaying the false debt he claimed they owed. (Kasthuri once said: “If the owner asks for the advance, we will repay it to him but won’t go back to work for him.”) As IJM helped educate them on their rights and the value of their Release Certificates—which officially absolved their debts—they grew more confident and eventually testified against the owner in court.
  • One of Kasthuri and Venkatesh’s main priorities was education for their son Shakthivel, who was 13 years old at the time of rescue. IJM helped him enroll in a local boarding school in the ninth grade. Kasthuri shared, “Now that I am free, all I want for my children is to be educated. Since I am illiterate, today when I go and ask for what is rightfully mine, I am disregarded and not heard…I want my children to be educated so that they don’t get cheated into bondage tomorrow or feel the need to look up to another person for their livelihood. Once they learn to read, they will be free forever!”

At the end of the two-year aftercare program, IJM staff reviewed Kasthuri and Venkatesh’s care plan and determined they had successfully reached Restoration. We were not able to celebrate them in our typical in-person aftercare graduation ceremony due to COVID-19, but aftercare managers helped them celebrate their success and plan for how they would continue living well without IJM’s direct support.

Sustaining Restoration and Helping Others

In early 2021, IJM staff revisited Kasthuri and Venkatesh to see how they were sustaining their lives in freedom and were pleased to find them still thriving.

Venkatesh has professionalized his wood-cutting business with an electric saw, which helps him earn a steadier income (600 rupees per day, about $8). Kasthuri has also overcome her fear of brick kilns and picks up daily wage work at ethical kilns near their home. They have also upgraded their house to a solid concrete structure, thanks to a government housing program.

Kasthuri has worked with other women in her community to start a Self-Help Group (SHG), which provides social support and an opportunity for financial savings. Kasthuri helps lead these meetings and keep track of their investment and savings, which each member can then borrow from for new opportunities or needs.

The family was also instrumental in securing rescue for another family who was in bondage at a local brick kiln. Kasthuri heard about their suffering and alerted IJM who worked with local authorities to free them. She still stays in touch with that family and acts as an ongoing support system. She also helped IJM and local government officials organize a community meeting in her village to raise awareness about bonded labor and trafficking.

IJM Chennai case manager Jenefa shares joyfully, “Venkatesh and Kasthuri's family has gone through a lot of hardships, but their spirits have never lost hope and joy. Kasthuri is like a phoenix bird. She has risen from the ashes and has reignited her leadership qualities after being rescued from a life of bondage. Her courage to acknowledge the problem, seek help when she or her family needs it, her will to effectively resolve problems has aided their family and her community to receive benefits from the government. It has also enabled Venkatesh and Kasthuri to evolve from survivors to leaders.”

[1] There are six domains of restoration that indicate a survivor’s stability: physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, economic empowerment and education, legal representation, safety, and social support. These are graded at the beginning and end of a survivor’s aftercare journey in our Assessment of Survivor Outcomes tool (ASO).

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