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Forced to make silk saris she could never afford

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Forced to make silk saris she could never afford

The work at the silkworm factory was familiar, Chandramma had been making silk saris since she was 8 years old. But this time was different. When IJM found Chandramma, she had been locked away in a tiny, dark cell of the silk factory - her son suffering beside her - for 6 months.

"Things got so desperate that I even thought of ending my life."

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handramma’s suffering has always been tangled up with the beauty of India’s vibrant silk industry. “I was barely 8 years old when I touched those silk threads for the first time,” she remembers thoughtfully.

“It’s ironic that I have never owned a silk sari in my life. They are always more expensive than I could afford.”

Throughout childhood, Chandramma and her sisters worked alongside their parents in sericulture factories—where silkworm cocoons are harvested and spun to make silk thread. It’s difficult work, with hours spent handling worms, boiling water and running high-speed spinning mills. She often had to leave school for years at a time to help their family earn a meager livelihood. Chandramma was smart and passionate, but every time she tried pursuing something else, a tragedy or financial need would drive her to the factories again.

She spent day after day in an Indian silkworm factory twisting the silk thread used to make saris. This silk thread was like her: strong, valuable, resilient. Yet it stripped her of her freedom each day she spent in forced labour.

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Instead of attending school, she spent her childhood rolling, reeling and weaving the silk fibers harvested from the silkworm cocoons. She was married off at 15 and had her first child soon after, a child she lost four years later.

The only sense of healing came when she had her second child, and even that was fleeting.

“Happiness in my life always came only as a visitor.”

Her husband abandoned her, leaving her to support her little family as a single mother. She attempted to make ends meet in the only short-lived jobs she could find—the very silkworm factories where she worked since she was a little girl.

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Then, she married again—thinking this new marriage would help her situation. But after giving birth to another child, her son Hemanth, the short-lived jobs weren’t enough to care for him anymore. So, when this loving mother was promised a better-paying job, she didn’t have a choice.

Chandramma’s hands were left raw and cramped from handling the worms in boiling water and spinning their silk fiber non-stop up to 16 hours a day. When she tried to escape, she was locked in a tiny, dark cell for six months—her 4-year-old son Hemanth beside her.

“Though we pleaded to be let out, our cries fell on deaf ears,” Chandramma said.

For six months, she had to make unfathomable decisions for her child. Should she use their two-liter water rations to stave off dehydration, or to bathe her son and prevent further painful rashes and boils?

“Things got so desperate that I even thought of ending my life.”

Chandramma was compelled to stay alive for her son. There are many out there still desperate for their freedom.

Freedom came in the soft calling of Chandramma’s name and the unlatching of her cell door. This time, when Chandramma cried out for help, you made sure someone was there to hear her.

Your support meant IJM could discover the many workers trapped in this silkworm factory, and partner with local police to rescue every single one of them—including Chandramma.

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This is Chandramma with her son on the day of rescue.

The very next day, Chandramma was officially declared free. Chandramma’s rescue was part of a string of rescues in Bangalore in 2019 that freed 161 people from forced labour in two silk factories.

Many of them had faced near-constant abuse and had developed skin diseases from the chemical exposure.

Today, Chandramma is a strong spokeswoman for the fight to end slavery, and a member of the local Karnataka RBLA (Released Bonded Labourer Association), and looks forward to helping others find freedom too.

Her IJM aftercare manager shares, “I remember the picture of Chandramma taken on the day of rescue, which shows how vulnerable she was..." now these photos show a "confident Chandramma, who now has a community and support system which enable her to care well for her two sons.”

Today Chandramma works for a wedding planner—she’s vowed never to go back to the silk industry—and is intently focused on bringing up her boys to have a better life. She says,

“My life was very difficult when I was in bondage, but now I am happy with what I have. Sometimes I do worry a little about my future and that of my two sons. Freedom to me is the way I am able to live my life right now.”

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