Slavery in India
The Cruelty of Debt
In debt bondage, slaves are chained to an illegal financial obligation that they are forced to repay through endless labor. If unrelenting psychological pressure fails, slave holders enforce their grip through direct violence.
The crushing mechanisms of bonded labor slavery are insidious, humiliating, and powerful. An entire family—men, women, and children—is forced to work for the person who holds the debt. If a slave gets sick and misses work, the debt grows.
Slaves are paid only enough to stay alive to work another day. Usurious interest rates ensure they can never earn enough to repay the debt. Those in slavery cannot walk away, even if they could pay off the loan more quickly by working elsewhere.
Debt bondage has been outlawed in India, but impoverished villagers do not know their rights—and many have no choice but to borrow funds when a family emergency arises. Many slaves have been trafficked away from their communities, with no way to get home if they were to escape.
Debt also snares women and girls into sex slavery at roadside red-light districts, now widely dispersed across the Indian countryside. Forced and fake marriages, often driven by financial factors, are widely used as a way of trafficking adolescent girls into domestic slavery and sexual exploitation.
Vulnerability is the key factor that drives slavery in India. Impoverished villagers who lack financial, legal, medical, and educational services are most likely to borrow from predatory moneylenders during times of crisis. Widespread caste-based discrimination also puts entire communities at risk.
Our Solutions in India
Rights Education—Freedom begins with the realization that slavery can be beaten.
Educating those in bondage about their rights, and showing them how others in similar circumstances have successfully reclaimed their freedom, is the first step.
Community Vigilance Committees—Free the Slaves has developed innovative strategies to organize and motivate the communities most afflicted by slavery.
Our work empowers villagers to challenge the authority of slave holders and demand police rescues of those who cannot free themselves. The formation of standing village committees helps residents collectively determine when and how they will make their break from bondage. The committees serve as vehicles for survivors to advocate for better schools, health care, economic development, and other community investments they are already entitled to under Indian law.
Freedom Plans—Free the Slaves helps those in slavery sketch out what their life in freedom should look like. This includes planning new ways to earn a living, often by learning a new trade or craft.
Transitional Schools—Children in slavery suffer from gaps in their education. Once rescued, they require accelerated remedial schooling before they can join their peers in public school classrooms. Free the Slaves help child slavery survivors catch up.
Legal Services and Survivor Support
Free the Slaves supports a team of Indian attorneys who specialize in human rights cases.
The lawyers help advocate for law enforcement to act on complaints lodged by those in slavery. They help slavery survivors receive formal government certification as crime victims—opening a range of employment opportunities and social service benefits. They help community members with the legal formalities of establishing businesses, such as obtaining permission to operate stone quarry operations on government land, which provides economic resilience.
Access to legal support helps the vulnerable ward off threats by those who would enslave them. They help survivors gain access to food rations, pensions, housing, agricultural land, and identity documents.
Free the Slaves has also supported the Punarnawa Ashram, a center for recovery and a path to independence for women and girl survivors of sex slavery. The shelter provided ongoing legal assistance, psychological care, basic medicine, education, and vocational skills training. The center’s name said it all—punarnawa means “new beginnings.”
See our booklet, Catalyzing a Civil Society Movement Against Slavery, for details of the Free the Slaves Community Liberation Initiative strategy to create slavery-free and slavery-resistant communities worldwide.
Read our report about the need for regional collaboration among South Asian anti-slavery organizations.
See a global Google Map of the communities where we work here.
Our Partners in India
In India, our current and previous partners have included:
- Manav Sansadham Evam Mahila Vikas Sansthan: MSEMVS helps communities form vigilance committees in Uttar Pradesh that offer a collective base of support for slaves and at-risk residents to access government entitlements, food rations, and health care—as well as how to advocate for improved schools, how to file legal cases, and how to act against a broad range of human rights violations.
- Pragati Gramodyog Sansthan: PGS helps communities form local self-help groups that empower villagers to stand up to slaveholders and refuse illegal debts, develop collective savings and loans associations, and start small businesses to ensure sustainable freedom.
- Jeeta Vimukti Karnataka (Life Free from Bondage in Karnataka): JEEVIKA works in rural villages outside Bengaluru, where Dalits, or “untouchable” castes, have endured centuries of poverty, humiliation, and slavery. JEEVIKA helps slaves understand their rights and free themselves by standing together against powerful land owners and complacent public officials.
- Tatvasi Samaj Nyas: TSN works to combat slavery and provide services that will ensure the long-term reintegration of slavery survivors. TSN provides direct legal services to survivors of bonded labor slavery and sex trafficking and also manages a shelter for girls and women who have survived trafficking in the commercial sex industry.