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 hope for the future.
When Mrs. Krishnaveni left the mills, all she had was a small two-acre piece of land. But she had no money to start cultivating it. She was desperately looking for a source of funds when she came into contact with the organisation Serene Secular Social Service Society (5s).
Staff of 5s had been working with several women in her village and they suggested the women pool their efforts. A group of five other women stepped up. They formed a Joint Liability Group (JLG) and got their first loan from the bank. The women decided they would put their share of the loan into Mrs. Krishnaveni's land to start their own business: a rose farm.
No woman in any of their families had ever started a business before. It was completely unchartered territory for each of them. So naturally, they were anxious. But as they received training on agricultural techniques from 5s, they slowly gained confidence.
The women learned how to lease coconut, mango and guava trees; they learned flower garden economics, manure management, coconut leaf weaving and bamboo basket making. And they began to manage their group and share tasks. Each one would take turns to water the garden, and they all worked together to fertilise, weed and pluck. If a member of their team fell ill or needed time to take care of her kids, husbands, parents and even parents-in-law all pitched in to help.
Soon they started selling their roses to flower merchants, who came directly to their garden. The flowers mostly end up as offerings in temples for religious festivals. During the off season when the price of flowers drops, the women make garlands to sell in their village flower shops or directly at the temple.
“I don’t need to ask my husband or in-laws for money. Now they ask me.”Former Sumangali worker and rose farmer, Mrs. Krishanveni
“With the income we are earning from our roses," the women explain, “we can support our families in every way. We can pay for education and health expenses, especially for our children."
With her earnings, Mrs. Krishnaveni has taken a lease on a coconut tree. While Mrs. Maheshwari started building her own house, something unheard of in her village. Mrs. Jothimani paid for her medical bills and Mrs. Ithayarani - as part of a big family - can significantly contribute to her family's income. Meanwhile, the young widow, Mrs. Nithya, is proud to be able to sustain herself without borrowing from local moneylenders.
As a group, the women repaid their loan in 11 installments, even though they had committed to paying in 18. Next year, they plan on taking out another loan in order to grow their business.
The story of this group of women 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