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India Fights to Bring ‘My Freedom Day’ to Its 12 Million Slaves

Image from Flickr by Steven Depolo. CC BY 2.0.

Students around the world recognized #MyFreedomDay last week, organizing events to spread awareness about modern-day slavery. On social media, activists explained what freedom means to them. In India, many students joined the movement by asking how far their country has actually come to eradicating slavery.

The Global Slavery Index 2016 defines slavery as situations where one person takes away another person’s freedom to control their body, their freedom to choose, to refuse certain work, or to stop working. This includes indentured labor, forced begging, domestic services, and commercial sex work.

Why do we need this kind of awareness?

Even in the 21st century, slavery remains a serious concern. The Global Slavery Index 2016, issued by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation, estimates that India's slave population grew 4.1 million people between 2014 and 2016 — bringing the country's total slave population to about 12 million people. The researchers also found that more than half of the people living in India today are vulnerable to being forced into slavery.

According to the website Scroll.in, more than 300,000 people in India have been identified as indentured workers and 4.2 million people qualify as domestic workers. Eight percent of all boys and 14 percent of all girls are beggars, says Scroll.in's report, and 3 million women work in the sex trade, 1.2 million of whom are minors. Additionally, half of the Indian women forced into marriages are then made to work as unpaid laborers.

What does modern-day slavery look like in India?

Tina, a 14-year old girl from Darjeeling, went missing one night. Working with local officials, “MARG” (Mankind in Action for Rural Growth) was able to rescue Tina, who was found in Delhi where she was brought under the false promise of a job in a big city. She was rescued before her captors could sell her off. But many aren't so lucky.

Many women are lured to big cities under the false pretense of a job and a better lifestyle.

According to the project “Women Under Siege,” there are whole criminal networks, composed of different agencies, working to identify potential victims living in poor households. The project reports that most of these agencies typically operate in villages in eastern India.

In December 2013, a 15-year-old girl was admitted to New Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital with her head and face bandaged, multiple bruises, a black-eye, swollen lips, burns, and scabs all over her body. This girl had been sold as domestic help and was beaten by her employer every day. Sadly, this is a typical case.

Indian girls are sometimes forced to work 14-16 hours a day, doing household chores, ranging from cooking and cleaning to childcare. They're paid next to nothing, and often their wages go directly to the “employment agencies.” Most of these women are trapped in this vicious cycle for life.

Slavery isn’t limited to domestic laborers and sex trafficking: many are stuck in indentured work. People borrow money to pay for basic necessities (farming, weddings, and so on), entering into contracts that exploit their illiteracy and desperation.

What's being done to end this?

India banned slavery in 1976 when it enacted the Bonded Labour Prohibition Act, but the practice remains widespread. Today, the government is debating about a fixed wage for contract laborers.

Other state initiatives include the campaign “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” (Save Your Daughter, Educate Her), which seems to have worked in crucial states like Haryana, where the women-to-men sex ratio has reportedly shifted.

Another campaign called “Selfie with Daughter” launched in Bibipur, a small village in Haryana. The initiative especially gained momentum after the prime minister promoted it:

The campaign also drew attention around the world:

There are several organizations working to end slavery today. Maiti in India and Nepal, Marg NGO, Free the Slaves, and Women Under Siege are just some of the programs and NGOs on this list.

At the local community level, people are taking steps to prevent dangerous vulnerabilities. For instance, there's a growing trend of group weddings, which saves money and reduces the need for loans that can ensnare individuals in debt.

This year, roughly 12 million slaves in India couldn't celebrate My Freedom Day. By 2030, that number could rise to 18 million people, if more isn't done to end the cycles of poverty and sexism that doom India's most vulnerable to lives of servitude.

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