Shubhawati Devi is one of three female Legal Aid Centre coordinators working with our NGO partner, PGS, in Allahabad district in northern India. I met her at the Centre where we launched a new women’s helpline, which was specially created to serve girls and women who belong to PGS’s 4,000 member Federation of self-help groups. The members of these groups are former bonded labourers or are struggling to come out of bonded labour.
Shubhawati, 26, grew up in a family of agricultural labourers. She said that as a child, she never had a dream for herself. It was only when she joined a PGS self-help group that she realised that her life could hold more possibilities. The women in the group pushed her to study and she got admitted to law school 35 km away in the city. Now in her second semester, she goes there five days a month for classes. She hopes to be a lawyer who can represent her clients in court.
It’s mostly other self-help group women that visit the Legal Aid Centre to get help with entitlements, take up complaints against harassment and violence and access land rights. Shubhawati works here from 10 am – 1 pm Monday to Saturday and usually handles two to three cases a day. When it’s not busy she uses the time to study.
Bonded labourers in stone-breaking and agriculture face a huge disparity of power, with the landowners and contractors enforcing debt bondage through fear and violence. Access to legal tools is part of changing that imbalance, though many families remain too afraid to prosecute the people who dominate the same villages where they live.
Shubhawati suggests that women and girls should come forward to practice law, saying it will make them more fearless if they are lawyers.
The Freedom Fund’s northern India hotspot aims to reduce trafficking, bonded labour and harmful child labour in two of India’s poorest states. Working with frontline organisations, we help communities build resistance to trafficking and slavery and reintegrate individuals coming out of situations of exploitation. Find out more about the Freedom Fund’s northern India hotspot.