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South Asia

Boy Rescued and Returned Home after Three Years in Bonded Labour

CHENNAI, INDIA – Earlier this month, IJM supported local officials and our casework partners to rescue a small 13-year-old boy who had been trapped in bonded labour slavery for the last three years. After a heart-breaking journey, he has finally been reunited with his mother who thought he had died.

Rahul’s* journey into bondage was complicated, but similar to many impoverished families in southern India.

His family lived in extreme poverty and had to take a loan of 7,000 rupees (about A$130) from a local farm owner to make ends meet. As repayment, they sent their eldest son to raise ducks at the man’s farm. Rahul would visit his brother often. But when his brother eventually ran away from the farm, the owner decided to keep 10-year-old Rahul there to work off the family’s debt, and they felt there was nothing they could do to stand up to him.

This is how bonded labour works in many parts of India – wealthy business owners use their power to entice vulnerable people, enslave them, and often intimidate them into never speaking up about the abuse. With no other options, many parents send their children to work these types of shepherding jobs, never realising that they are sending them into a trap.

When Rahul’s parents came back nine months later – assuming the loan would have been repaid – the farm owner claimed he had no idea where the boy was. In reality, the owner had sold him to another farm. Rahul spent the next two years rearing goats under the control of a ruthless and violent man, and no one knew where he was.

Back at home, his parents were completely distraught and assumed their son had died. The grief and guilt became too much to bear, and Rahul’s father eventually died from suicide. Rahul’s mother was left alone to rebuild life with their youngest child.

After two years at the goat farm, Rahul managed to escape the abusive owner but struggled to find his way home. A third goat-farm owner found him and put him to work, and Rahul again felt hopeless there were any other options for his life.

When IJM’s grassroots partner Pazhangudi Irular Peravai discovered the boy working, he had already spent three years in total misery. He was forced to sleep outside with the animals, only had one small meal a day, and had suffered intense verbal, physical and emotional abuse. This organisation contacted SHED India – another NGO which IJM has trained – and together we planned how to free Rahul.

On November 7, 2020, IJM and our partners assisted district authorities on a rescue operation to bring Rahul to safety and hear the truth about his experience. He was given a release certificate to formally break his bonds to the farm owner and – after years apart – was finally reunited with his shocked mother and grandfather.

“It was too emotional for me to witness the reunion of the boy with this family,” one SHED India staff member shared. “His mother had conceded the thought that her son was no more…to see him in flesh and blood was her dream coming true! They are now home and cannot wait to restart life all over again.”

Going forward, Rahul will be supported by SHED India and the government’s Child Welfare Committee to ensure he stays safe and can heal from the three years of abuse. Local officials are also filing complaints against the farm owners who enslaved him, and we hope to see them held accountable so they cannot abuse other families again.

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