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 shared their personal stories of love, struggle and hope for the future with us.
This is Mariyashanthi (19), a survivor of Sumangali. She worked at a spinning mill for 9 years, until her health started failing due to the working conditions.
Mariyashanthi's parents were separated just after she was born. Her older brother went with her mother and she stayed with her father. He took care of Mariyashanthi her entire life, until the day she was married. When Mariyashanthi's was in the 6th grade, her father decided to send her to work at the textile spinning mill so that she could make enough money to be married. And so her father got in touch with a man who was known to pay visits to the village to find new workers for the mills.
“After I had my baby girl, my husband murdered my father because he tried to separate us.”Former Sumangali worker Mariyasanthi (19)
At the spinning mill, Mariyashanthi made enough money to pay for her marriage expenses, with which her father 'settled her in marriage' after she had worked in the mills for 7 years.
After about a year of marriage and while pregnant, a misunderstanding arose between Mariyashanthi's father and her husband. Her father took the decision to separate his daughter from her husband and she remained with her father until after the birth of her baby girl.
Mariyashanthi decided to return to her husband, but when her baby was 3 months old the two men had another argument. Mariyashanthi's father did not agree with how her husband was treating her. While attempting to take his daughter back again, Mariyashanthi's husband killed her father. Mariyashanthi's husband was placed in a children's remand home (he was only 17 at the time) and Mariyashanthi went to live with her mother.
“No matter what I decide, my daughter needs me. My mother has been a source of support no matter what. I will be one for my baby too.”Former Sumangali worker Mariyasanthi (19)
Despite her struggles, Mariyashanthi was determined to rebuild her life - for her daughter's sake. She came into contact with the organisation SSSSS (5s). The social workers counselled Mariyashanthi and as was not eligible for a loan from the bank, 5s supported Mariyashanthi's mother to receive a loan on her behalf. They received a Rs. 25,000 (about €350) loan to start a small business, grinding rice flour to make dosa and idli batter.
Now, Mariyashanthi works making rice flour while she attends a skill training course in tailoring. She is proud to have learned to stitch, cut and make embroidery. Mariyashanthi will carry her past with her forever, but now she can also look ahead to the future with hope.
Mariyashanthi'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 make fashion a force for good.
Photography by Ryan Lobo