The sun had not yet risen as we piled into two large vehicles and set out to rescue nearly 40 people trapped in slavery. "Don't be nervous," said Anu George Canjanathoppil, a director at International Justice Mission (IJM), an anti-human trafficking NGO. "We have done this so many times."
It was a long and rough road to the catfish farming facility. According to an investigator on the trip, men and women were forced to work up to 22 hours a day, without pay. Some had worked in the facility for over 25 years, pulling apart maggot-infested chicken carcasses and feeding them to the fish. Many people were covered in infected boils from hours spent catching catfish in toxic water filled with farming chemicals.
Canjanathoppil has led her team through many of these endeavors, assisting the government in the rescue of over 5,000 people in the past five years. It is an incredible accomplishment; according to Harvard scholar Siddharth Kara, India has the highest number of people living in slavery, with an estimated 11 million bonded labourers. These workers spend years—sometimes their whole lives—trapped in slavery to pay off a debt that may not even be their own.
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Police officers, government officials, and Canjanathoppil's team made their way through the facility to the small dirt hovels where the laborers were kept. There was a foul odor of what seemed to be a mix of fish carcasses and human excrement—so strong everyone had to cover their mouths to keep from gagging. As a group of male facility managers tried to provoke the rescue team and convince the police officers to leave, Canjanathoppil stepped forward without hesitation to confront them—an act that was quite against the cultural and gender norm.
After she pointed out the clear evidence of slavery to facility managers, there was no denying that the laborers were enslaved. The rescue team then gathered the men, women (two of whom were pregnant), and children into the back of several vans and took them a nearby government building where they received release certificates that absolved them of past debts and provide them with government benefits. They were finally free.
"People with power thrive off of instilling fear and abusing people they see as weaker beings," Canjanathoppil says of the many death threats she has received in the course of her work. "Their mistake is thinking that the brave people hoping for freedom, or me and my team are weak because of our gender or social standing."
Avani* is one of the thousands of people rescued by Canjanathoppil and her organization. After her parents died when she was 15, she was sold to a trafficker by her aunt and uncle. She was then trafficked to a different state where she didn't know the area or language, and sold to a "very old and mean" man. Her new husband did not just beat her—he locked her up, repeatedly raped her, and prostituted her to other men.
After being resold as a bonded laborer, she married another worker from the same facility for protection. The couple escaped after enduring years of brutal beatings and threats from their abusive owner. Canjanathoppil's team and their partner organization have helped the couple to obtain release certificates, along with rehabilitation support.
"It gives me nightmares," said Canjanathoppil. "Seeing thousands of people brutally beaten and tortured because of their helplessness and vulnerability, it's just not right. And there are millions of them. That's why we must persevere."
Before working for IJM, Canjanathoppil had also had been brutally beaten. While trying to help street children, she was attacked by about six local mafia men who were exploiting the children for their profit. After a long and difficult recovery, she went on to pursue a Master's degree in law to help prosecute slave owners and traffickers.
"They didn't kill me or my spirit or my determination, they only made me stronger and more committed to what I know I believe in," Canjanathoppil said. "I don't mind sharing my story, as long as it encourages people to take a stand against injustice which floods our world."
A few months after the laborers were rescued from the catfish farm facility, they reunited with Canjanathoppil's team for their rehabilitation program. The two pregnant women had since given birth and introduced the team to their newborns.
The rescued survivors spent the next several days learning practical tools like how to handle money, where to file a police report in case their former owners threatened them, and how to receive the government benefits they were entitled to. Under newly proposed guidelines, the government will compensate former laborers with 100,000 rupees ($1450), an increase from 20,000 rupees ($290).
At Canjanathoppil's workshops, they also participated in games and activities created to help build their confidence to make empowered, independent decisions. The sessions emphasized the importance of respecting and valuing every human being, both men and women—something that Canjanathoppil feels strongly about.
"I found a world which treated me differently, often shamefully because I am a woman," Canjanathoppil said. "A world which was constantly telling me there were things I must not do, must not dream about, must not try to achieve… because I am a woman. A world that could use violence to subdue anyone who is weak, poor, vulnerable, broken… or a woman.
"We need to recognize that inbuilt machinery which makes us able to challenge injustice or even more simply, just value a human being's dignity."
* Name has been changed
Correction: An early standfirst for the article mistakenly said that Canjanathoppil had received beatings while working at International Justice Mission. She was actually beaten before she began working for the organization. This has been corrected. The claim that men and women were working up to 22 hours a day without pay at the catfish factory has also been attributed.