There are millions of enslaved domestics in India, and a further 264,000 child domestics in Pakistan. Children are often sent away from their villages to work in order to clear a family debt. These loans have immensely high rates of interest, and in many cases no remuneration is given at all. The debt is often passed onto a younger sibling or onto the domestic’s own children. The children work 15 or more hours a day, seven days a week, for little or no pay under abusive conditions, generally have little or no freedom of movement, are denied schooling, and are often sexually exploited. Consequently, domestic work is often a precursor to commercial sex work. Many domestics in India—some as young as seven or eight—are on duty around the clock, sleep on the kitchen floor, eat leftovers, and have no holidays or rest breaks.
Kavita’s psychological turning-point from slavery to freedom came some months after her escape from domestic slavery. As she explains, there was no turning-point upon her initial arrival at a shelter: “I was very scared. I refused to speak for the first two days. I just cried and cried.” It was only when she reversed the most traumatic aspect of her experience in slavery that Kavita reached a turning-point. Trafficked with her younger sister into domestic servitude within India in 2002, at the age of 12, Kavita was forced to watch her sister “beaten up, tortured, made to work every day.” She recalls “sitting in a corner, tied, a witness to the beating of my younger sister…unable to protect her…Each time I think about that, I just stagnate.” But when she was encouraged her to “help out the tiny ones” at the shelter, Kavita was able to counter this trauma. She began to gain confidence to “start my life afresh.”
My sister and I were living in a village. We were happy. We were poor and our parents had to struggle to give us a daily existence, but there was a bond. There was love, there was affection. I’m 14 now, so when I left home I was about 12. But even though I was 12, I was still very innocent. I hadn’t seen life beyond my home.
When we came to the house in Allahabad, they made every single effort to break my bond with my sister. I was tied and thrown into a room like a piece of furniture. I had clear instructions not to talk to my sister or to speak with her, to have no contact with her—almost like I didn’t exist. I was nothing. In front of me, my sister was beaten up, tortured, made to work every day. I couldn’t console her. It was crazy. This was my sister, someone I shared every single moment of my life with. There was no bond. Think about it. I am sitting in a corner, tied, a witness to the beating of my younger sister. Even being elder, I’m unable to protect her. I can only hear her cries of pain. I can’t talk to her. Nothing. Each time I think about that, I just stagnate. My thoughts become still. I can’t think beyond the fact that there’s a possibility I will never meet her again. The pain is so deep. I’m alone. Pretty much at a loss for words.
When I left that house, I had no idea about anything—where I would land up, what I would do. I was just so scared. I didn’t know anything. When I was waiting at the station, fear crept into my heart. I kept thinking: “Where will I go from here? What will I do?” Even when I came to the shelter, I was very scared. I refused to speak for the first two days. I just cried and cried. I would sleep uncontrollably for days. Ravatni helped me a lot. She talked to me and would console me: “I understand that you have a ten year-old sister who’s been left behind. I understand that your parents are dead. But you must also understand the fact that there’s nothing you can do about this at this point in time. You’re in a new place, a place that can teach you a lot. So maybe it’s possible for you to try forgetting the past and move on.” Something went down, registered, slowly. But even then, I was just so emotional I did not want to study. I would see others around me opening their books, studying. But even though my mind was in it, my heart wasn’t.
So Ravatni encouraged me with this thought: that I would help out the tiny ones. Any younger child I would see, I would help them out with the homework, with little lessons that I could do. And then there was a friend of mine, Sonia. I would steal her books and read from them. So my interest developed. I began to read little by little and now each time I see a book I want to devour it. So my interest in studies is definitely increased. It’s a lot to do with Ravatni—her encouragement, her wisdom, her knowledge and the confidence that she gave me to start my life afresh.
Now I’m happy, very very happy, happy with the life I’m leading over here and happy when I think where I could be, in the place where my sister is right now. But even though I am happy at the life and the activities that I do here, each time I think about my sister and what she has to go through in her daily life, I am just so hurt, so resentful and so angry. I am happy about my luck and my fortune, that I am where I am, but still angry at what she is suffering. When I ran away from that place, it was the very first time I had come to Allahabad, so I was not familiar with the names of the places or where her house is. I have descriptions, I know the village setup. The house where she was working was a big house. There was a shop close by and that’s what all I remember. I remember what it looked like but not the exact location of it or the name of the place.
People who do such things must understand that we are children. We are so innocent, so vulnerable. They must understand they must not do this to anyone, anywhere. What I would like to say to the world is when it comes to children, they’re small, they’re innocent, they’re vulnerable. They just like playing, laughing, having fun, and very often they are unable to comprehend the repercussions of what the elders are doing to them. I believed them, and I went with them to that house.
What I’ve learned from this shelter is how to become a better human being. I learned the values of empathy, the values of sympathy, the values of sincerity. To deal with not only my pain but that of somebody else. How to respect emotions; how to know when to give people space; how to talk to the person who’s tormenting me, to explain what they’re doing is wrong in a polite yet effective manner. I’ve learned how to deal with myself and with others. I want to grow up and I want to study to become a nurse. I want to become a nurse so I can help other people and look after them in their hour of need.
Narrative as told to Peggy Callahan for Free the Slaves, November 3, 2004, at a women’s shelter run by Sankalp, in Uttar Pradesh, India.