By Carol Metzker, member of the Rotary Club of One World D5240 and member of the Rotarian Action Group Against Slavery
The temperature in rural India was 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but I had goosebumps.
Villagers and my fellow team members made music and danced in the shade. Village men gave speeches. A woman in a pink sari photographed festivities with her cell phone as I did with mine. It was hard to believe that the villagers were former slaves. Many had been free for only a few months, but they were using every minute to create new chapters in their lives and their children’s.
Villagers had once agreed to work in fields and brick kilns in exchange for money to buy medicines or weddings. But under schemes that made repaying loan interest impossible, villagers were trapped in generational debt bondage slavery. More than 100 adults and children were enslaved, illiterate and hungry. None had ever attended school. Slaveholder violence toward them was a given.
In 2014, Rotarians decided that their story could have a better ending.
Fueling villagers’ courage, strength and resilience, Rotarians joined a partnership between a United States non-profit organization, Voices4Freedom (V4F) and an Indian anti-slavery organization, Manav Sansadhan Evam Mahila Vikas Sansthan (MSEMVS) with a powerful model for facilitating sustainable freedom—beginning with a school. The Rotarian Action Group Against Slavery, 13 Rotary clubs, two districts, one Rotaract club and additional individuals raised $36,000 USD to pay for a School4Freedom (S4F), computers, street lamps, children’s meals and salaries for MSEMVS’s teachers and frontline workers. Over three years, villagers received education, information about human rights and skills for self-organizing. Read more.
During the process, there were obstacles: a storm that destroyed the school’s roof, and threats and beatings by the slaveholder and his accomplices.
There were also victories. Children were rescued from brick kilns and enrolled at the S4F. Villagers trafficked to other states were reunited with their families. Frontline workers helped villagers form a Community Vigilance Committee to protect their rights and their families and a women’s Self Help Group led to villagers demanding wages from slaveholders and justice from local government officials who had previously turned a blind eye to enslavement.
When I visited the village in October 2018 with V4F, MSEMVS and other donors, the majority of the villagers were free and self-sufficient. One freed villager, Banavari had started a trolley-rickshaw business, Kaushalyi cleaned and cooked lunches at the S4F. Others were tailors and shopkeepers.
On March 14, 2019, I received an email message that gave me goosebumps again. The entire village was free.
Today villagers are thriving. In the past year since their freedom was gained, the women’s Self Help Group independently secured a bank loan and leased land to run an agricultural enterprise. Eleven families achieved the financial means to send their children to private schools. Helped by the Community Vigilance Committee, twelve more families obtained housing. With education and skills, they have reversed cycles of poverty and enslavement so that generations to come will continue to know freedom.
The Rotarian Action Group Against Slavery provides information about, and promote ways to engage and support anti-slavery and human trafficking projects, programs and campaigns. Learn more about the group.