In the C&A Foundation series Life After Forced Labour, photographer Ryan Lobo meets women who have rebuilt their lives after working under a particular form of forced labour called Sumangali. They graciously share with us their personal stories of love, struggle and hopes for the future.
"I fell in love with Prabhukumar when I worked in the cotton spinning mill. We were off different castes and decided to get married. Though threatened with banishment we got married anyways. I had a daughter and stopped working in the Sumangali scheme, as there was no one to look after my child and the long hours, constant standing, noise and pollution were damaging my health. We were the happiest we had ever been. I had a son and then Prabhukumar fell off a coconut tree and was paralysed. I needed to find a way to look after my entire family, while staying at home.
I sincerely believed that life could not get any better. I was blessed with a loving husband and healthy children but everything changed after my husband's paralysis. I found myself alone in the world with a dependent husband and children to care for."
“I found myself alone in the world with a dependent husband and children to care for.”Former Sumangali worker, Karupayi
"From being the sole breadwinner Prabhukumar was suddenly transformed into being an invalid, physically incapable of looking after himself. I need to evacuate his bowels with surgical gloves twice a day everyday. Life can change.
My world seemed to have ended. I never imagined that this would happen to me. No one ever does, I think. I had two children and a husband incapable of earning for us or even looking after himself. I was advised to abandon him by my family who said that he would be a terrible burden. If I left him, he would have died. But only I know that he would not have died from his condition but from a broken heart. I made a decision. I decided to never leave him and to live in love. To live in love. Because what else is there?
I needed an income and the freedom to care for my family. No one would help. Even our own families rejected us and there was immense pressure on me to abandon him.
I met with social workers from an organization named 5s and they guided me on getting a loan to start a small business. It was not easy but I did not want to leave home as I had two small children and a husband to care after so I decided to set up a fish farm. That way I could earn and stay at home."
“I made a decision. I decided to never leave him and to live in love. To live in love. Because what else is there?”Former Sumangali worker, Karupayi
"I was asked to join a group of six other former mill workers from my village and form a JLG (Joint Liability Group) from which I was given a loan of 25,000 rupees (about EUR 320). With this money I began my fish farm. I buy fingerlings, feed them every day and sell them when they reach a certain size.
My greatest wish - my only wish - is to be able to see my husband walk again. For that I would give anything. But life is as it is.
Initially things were very difficult. We had to dig the pits, get water from the common source and negotiate that, but eventually I generated a monthly income. A business at home meant I could spend time taking care of my family. It meant I could buy my husband a better quality of rice so that his bowels could function better. The mills did not pay me enough and did not give me the time for my family that my business gave me. Running my own business changed everything."
“Running my own business changed everything.”Former Sumangali worker, Karupayi
“People always ask me why I did not leave my husband. 'He cannot earn and is completely dependent on you' they say. But Prabhukumar never gave up on me when we got married even though he faced terrible pressure not to marry me. I was not in control of what happened to my husband, but I am in control of what I can do now. I have decided to live in love. In our family, we live in love. That is all. What more is there to say?"
Karupayi's story reminds us of the incredible resilience of the people who work in the garment industry. At C&A Foundation, we remain committed to working together with partners like Freedom Fund and 5s to eradicate forced and child labour from the supply chain and make fashion a force for good.
Photography by Ryan Lobo