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South Asia

Enslaved at 5 Years Old – Freed After a Decade

CHENNAI, INDIA – In early December, IJM’s trained casework partner SHED India helped authorities rescue a 15-year-old boy from ten years of bonded labour slavery.

This boy had been working as a shepherd for a local goat farmer since he was 5 years old. SHED India staff discovered his family had taken a loan of about 150,000 rupees (less than A$2,700) from the farmer to make ends meet, and the boy was sent to work to pay off the debt.

The team tracked this boy for several months as they tried to learn more about his story and experience. He has never been to school and has very few memories of his family or hometown. He’s had to fend for himself for years—sleeping outside with the 300 goats and rarely getting sufficient food. He also told them about an instance where a goat got lost, and the owner beat him until he bled. He was never allowed to get medical care.

Shocked by the abuse this boy has suffered for a decade, SHED India staff brought the case to the One Stop Crisis Team, a task force of government officials who respond to bonded labour and human trafficking.

On 10 December, this team scoured a huge open grassland where the boy was known to graze his goats. They finally found him, confirmed the truth of his story, and brought him to safety at a government office. During the operation, local community members also came forward to say they had witnessed the abuse for years.

Throughout the case, IJM and SHED India staff were deeply impressed with the sensitivity these local authorities showed the boy. In the past, some officials were skeptical that bonded labour still exists, but these leaders were deeply committed to the boy’s wellbeing and safety.

One SHED India staff member shared, “In the rescue, the Revenue Division Officer (RDO) understood that [this boy] loves sweets. He bought a box of sweets and gave it to him. [The boy] shared his joy and shared it with others who were present, knowing he is finally free!”

The rescue team also helped the boy get a hot meal for the first time in years. He will be taken to a safe, government-run shelter for his short-term healing and until the team can find his family.

Authorities also gave the boy a Release Certificate, which breaks the false debts that kept him bound to the farmer. This certificate will also help him access government benefits to help his long-term healing and rehabilitation. Authorities will also follow up on arresting and charging the farmer as the investigation continues.

Successful rescues like this one are an encouraging example of IJM’s model at work in India. After years leading operations alongside the government, IJM teams are now training proactive grassroots partners like SHED India how to combat trafficking in their own communities. The model is working, and now thousands of children, women and men are finding freedom through our partners every year.

IJM’s Preeti Daniel shared, “I feel so proud to stand beside our partner today. Despite all odds—including the uncertainty of the boy’s statements, which they feared might be hampered by fear—the SHED India team persevered in this case and ensured this boy walked free today after ten whole years in slavery.”

She added, “The remarkable thing about this rescue is the brilliant convergence of all stakeholders in the district, and their coordinated, concentrated effort in ensuring that the boy is officially released and rehabilitated.”

The rescue operation was also covered widely in local newspapers—helping to prove the persistence of bonded labour today, but also the good work of NGOs and government officials to ensure all victims can be freed.

This rescue was covered widely in local newspapers.

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