Mallika is 34 years old and spends her days taking care of her home and three boys, who keep her on her toes. They run around her all day vying for her attention and she tries her best to get them to listen to her even though it’s virtually impossible to get in a word edgeways.

To an outsider, Mallika and her little ones may make for an endearing image but the young mother’s desperately sad eyes and her subsequent confession make it hard not to feel that life has indeed short-changed her.

Like most teenage girls, Mallika had many hopes for her future. “I wanted to study in a good school and college, dress up in colourful dresses and have fancy bags like the glamorous city girls, work in an office with the latest computers, earn lots of money and save so that my family and I would lead a comfortable life. None of that has happened – or will ever happen,” she rues.

Reality hit her hard the day a broker approached her parents in their little village near Srirangam in Tamil Nadu to convince them to send her off to work for a textile mill in the nearby town of Dindigul under the Sumangali Thittam arrangement. As part of this widely followed practice in the countryside, girls between 13 and 18 years are hired to work as bonded labour in textile factories in exchange for a monetary package that goes towards meeting their marriage expenses.

Although bonded labour was legally abolished in India in 1976 and was also declared a gross human rights violation in 1984 after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the Bandhua Mukti Morcha case, the practice continues to this day, particularly in rural areas, mainly due to weak or non-existent law enforcement. Sumangali Thittam is effectively a modern version of the extreme exploitation and abuse that bonded labourers traditionally faced.

The system pivots around the perception that a girl child is essentially a liability and that she can ‘redeem’ herself by working to earn her own dowry. So much so, that most impoverished families would rather have their girls toil long hours in airless factories to make a tidy sum that is simply handed over to her prospective in-laws than undertake the expense of educating her in the hope that she would one day get a proper job and contribute to the household income.

The scheme unfolds thus: brokers or employment contractors hired by local spinning mills go into the remote villages to entice parents into signing a three to four year contract with them at the assurance that not only will their girls will be taken care of – ‘perks’ such as daily wages along with free boarding, lodging and meals are guaranteed as part of the deal – but that at the end of said time they would also receive a lump sum of Rs 30,000 or so, which they can use as they deem fit.

Unfortunately, the treatment meted out to them as well as their working conditions on the ground are quite the opposite. For starters, the youngsters are defined as “apprentices” and not as “employees”, which instantly deprives them of their rights. Besides, they are forced to slog for a gruelling 16 to 18 hours daily and are seldom given any wages. On their feet for hours on end lands them with crippling ailments - from several allergies to chronic back pain and stomach disorders - very early in life. In fact, research reveals that many girls in such set ups have complained of developing severe physical illnesses apart from enduring mental trauma and sexual abuse.

As Mallika’s children get busy playing, she takes a breather to recall the horrific years she spent as a bonded labourer. She takes her time to tell her story. “I was recruited along with a bunch of other girls from my village when I turned 14. From then on, I worked non-stop for four years. I had to spin yarn standing all day long and was soon suffering from acute pain in my lower back and knees. Then I developed a condition wherein I heard a constant buzzing in my ear even when I was not working. It was eventually diagnosed as low blood pressure and tinnitus. Later on, marriage, which was my escape route, came with its own set of problems and challenges. When I was expecting my first child, I was so weak physically that I was sure I wouldn’t survive the pregnancy. It was just too much to bear. My entire body and nervous system had gone for a toss with the back-breaking labour I had been forced to do for years,” she says.

Whereas her physical injuries have slowly healed, the mental scars and the pain of broken dreams is something Mallika is still struggling to come to terms with. And it’s heartrending to know that there are hundreds of thousands of Mallikas across the state, grappling with the agony of compromise they have been forced to make. Of course, what is even worse is that the elders still do not see the injustice in this situation.

Gannashekaran, one of the older men living on the outskirts of Srirangam, sent both his daughters to work in a mill under the Sumangali Thittam arrangement and does not regret his decision in any way. “What is wrong with what I did?” he retorts vehemently. “I am a daily wage worker and I make just enough to feed myself and my wife and pay for my son’s education. I couldn’t have afforded the upkeep of my daughters, leave alone their weddings. So I let them go to work in the textile mills when they were 14 and 16, respectively. Now they are settled and have their own families. There is nothing wrong in making such a choice. When you are poor, it doesn’t matter where your money comes from particularly if you are not doing anything illegal,” he adds.

Ironically enough, Gnanashekaran doesn’t see the illegality in this form of bonded labour. “What is illegal in this? Nothing! The girls go there, work, and instead of a monthly wage, they get a meal or two a day, and when they get married, they are given a dowry. What else do girls need money for if not for their dowry? And that is something this system enables them to have.”

As infuriating and unfair as this may sound to a feminist or a rights activist, this is the reality on the ground. Patriarchy has many manifestations and this is just another one that needs to be challenged.

(Women's Feature Service)