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South Asia

Bid for Local Office Fuels Survivor with Big Dreams for Her Community

CHENNAI, INDIA – Varalakshmi can still remember the hurt and shame that accompanied her life in modern slavery—and she’s on a bold mission to ensure others never have to feel that pain.

Back in 2004, IJM and local officials helped rescue Varalakshmi’s family from rice mill where they were enslaved for seven years. Slave owners used false debts to control them as they worked constantly under brutal violence, fear and isolation.

Since then, her life has changed slowly but dramatically. Varalakshmi’s family returned to their home village to rebuild, and two slave owners were eventually convicted. Today, she’s an entrepreneur with a successful tailoring business and gets to give back to others, which she always wanted to do.

For the last several years, Varalakshmi has also been advocating for survivors like herself as a leader in her local Released Bonded Labourer Association (RBLA). She’s even helped to bring cases to the government for those still waiting for rescue, saying,

“I never want anyone to suffer like me and my family.”

In December 2019, Varalakshmi bravely decided to take her advocacy a step further by contesting in a local election to become a Ward Member and represent her village. She was the first woman from her ethnic group (the Irula tribe) to run for such an office.

Before the election, she shared, “I want to empower my community and the poor in the village. As a councillor, my voice will have a better reach to help the people.”

Though she lost by just 40 votes in December, Varalakshmi is not discouraged and has vowed to continue leading confidently. She says,

“I still remain a leader by serving my people. I stood in the election to convey a message that even an Irular woman and a former bonded labourer like me is competent enough to contest in elections.”

Determined and exuberant, Varalakshmi is thriving in freedom on her own terms: “Today I am happy and at peace. I eat and I live. I do what I like, when I like and however I like to do it. I am so happy and relieved. I have finally started to live my dream!”

Read more about Varalakshmi’s election bid in The Times of India.

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