Cazzie Reyes is a Researcher for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Anti-Trafficking Programs. She graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.
In pockets of southern India, Dalits are making strides toward self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Socially outcast, the Dalits are a marginalized group often subjected to caste-based violence and labor exploitation. In the Karnataka state, groups of Dalit women and children are working together to change these conditions.
In Nagenhalli, a small village in Karnataka, a sewing machine whirs as HuligeAmma finishes hemming a shirt.
She pauses and begins, “I was 12 years old when I was dedicated as a devadasi to the Goddess Yellamma.”
Once enjoying a high status in society, the devadasi are typically lower-caste girls assigned to serve deities and temples. However, after the kingdoms of India fell under British rule in the 1850s, temples were left penniless, and the devadasis found themselves without their traditional support system. Eventually, some of the impoverished girls and women in this traditional practice entered or were forced into sexual slavery in the Hindu temples. Though the government outlawed temple slavery in 1988, the prostitution of devadasis continued. HuligeAmma endured abuses in the temple, but after the birth of her fifth child, she fled and made her way to Hospet, a town close to northern Karnataka.
In Hospet, she began to work for an open cast mine. The backbreaking work and system of bonded labor kept her there for six years. Finally, in 2009, HuligeAmma sought the help of a local non-governmental organization, Sakhi Trust, and left the mines.
Today, HuligeAmma is a seamstress and teaches dressmaking skills in her village. Furthermore, she’s able to support all of her children as they attend school. Her daughter, Roopa, is a youth coordinator with Sakhi Trust.
Stories of freedom, like that of HuligeAmma’s, dot the Karnataka state. BhagyaAmma who was once trapped in temple slavery and forced to work in illegal mines is now rearing and planning to sell goats for profit. In the small village of Danapura, Lakshmi Devi Harijana became the first woman in her region to teach in a college. In that same village, 25 women have earned their university degrees. These achievements became possible when HuligeAmma, BhagyaAmma, and Lakshmi overcame the circumstances they were born into.
Manjula, a former mine-worker turned anti-slavery activist, comments, “Walk into any Dalit home in this region and you will not meet a single woman or child who has never worked in a mine as a ‘coolie’ (laborer).”
But these women and children don’t have to stay stuck in these mines and temples. Just like HuligeAmma, they can change the courses of their lives and be free from slavery. To be a part of their freedom stories, visit EveryChild.
Petition for the release of a human rights and antislavery activist
Harold D'Souza is a survivor of forced labor and bonded labor. Read his End Slavery Now guest blog post.