VGIF S'H'Ero spotLight: India
VGIF Project Director
Founder, Rural Women Development Trust
It's not a coincidence that Alamelu has used VGIF funding to help rescue dozens of indentured servants.
Her parents were bonded laborers, and so were their parents before them.
The bonded labor system in India allows the wealthy to take advantage of members of lower castes. The landowners give families loans they need to survive, and then require years of work in return - with impossible interest rates that keep some families in service for generations.
"My grandparents initially took a 200 rupee advance (3 U.S. dollars), and then my father continued this work," Alamelu told VGIF. "He started early in the morning at 4 am, and worked until 11 o'clock at night. He made no money. We used to have cooked food one day and then kanji (leftover rice soaked in water) for the next three days."
When Alamelu was 10 and her brother was 9, their parents were infected with small-pox. Unable to work on the farm, her parents returned to their village 3 miles away.
But the bonded labor debt remained unpaid, so Alamelu and her brother were forced to drop out of school and take their parents place as indentured servants.
During the day, Alamelu cleaned stalls and shoveled manure. At night, she was sexually assaulted by the landlord.
When a local teacher learned what had happened to his favorite students, he went to the landlord and asked that the children be permitted to attend school. The landlord refused and said the teacher could take the children for 2,000 rupees ($30) - two month's salary.
"He took us and re-enrolled us in the school," Alamelu said. "He told us that we must study And that after our studies we shouldn't just take any job, but work for the freedom of our people."
So she did.
After graduation, Alamelu worked for the women's movement in India and organized for the rights of her caste - the Arunthathiyar. "I worked with people to educate them about their rights; to achieve more protections and have laws implemented properly; to have cases put against the perpetrators."
Alamelu was arrested four times during her civil rights work. Seeking a way to create real and lasting change for the Arunthathiyar people, she formed the Rural Women Development Trust (RWDT).
"They don't have resources, money, land," she said of the caste. "They don't have options. They won't even let Arunthathiyar touch a cloth used for cooking in the kitchen. Once I touched a cow and the owners took the cow and washed it.
After discussing the barriers confronting her people - particularly women - with community members in several villages, Alamelu decided the best solution was coir rope making. There was demand for the service, it's an easily taught skill, and the start-up materials were inexpensive.
In one year with VGIF funding, RWDT identified 120 women entrapped in the bonded labor system. With a 90-day training course, they taught them how to make rope, provided them with the starting materials to get their businesses off the ground, and connected them with the local markets. On top of that - the group held education sessions so that all of the participants gained an understanding of labor laws. Alamelu wanted them to not only understand their rights as employees, but as women.
"The women used to perceive these things as routine. Now they perceive these things as injustice."
Only 1.75% of Arunthathiyar women know how to read. By training them to make coir ropes and providing them with everything they need to make their businesses sustainable, RWDT and VGIF have helped these women put an end to a cycle that seems inescapable.
Thus far, the project has increased the daily incomes of its participants by 230 rupees a day - more than Alafemu's grandparents took when they entered the bonded labor system all of those years ago.