New Internationalist

Viyakula Mary

Issue 421

Viyakula Mary talked with Ewa Jasiewicz

Photo by DAVID KIRKWOOD
Viyakula Mary talked with Ewa Jasiewicz. Photo by DAVID KIRKWOOD

In Tirupur, the heart of India’s textile capital, Mary works on behalf of exploited workers – including children – toiling in the factories. The full-time co-ordinator of the Child Rights Cell and Labour Resource Centre at SAVE (Social Awareness and Voluntary Education) has her work cut out for her: Tirupur’s textile industry employs half a million workers and produces millions of garments each year for the likes of Marks and Spencer, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger and Primark.

‘I work towards rescuing and rehabilitating child labourers, orphans, street children, railway children, children from broken families, those living in extreme poverty and those children subject to physical and sexual abuse,’ explains Mary. ‘Our team works to place the children either in our residential homes or bridge schools, where after a year of quality education, they can be placed back into formal education, with the full support of SAVE.

‘The Labour Resource Centre mobilizes garment and textile workers to take action and call for the implementation of their statutory labour and welfare rights. Workers are subject to various forms of exploitation, from lack of basic health and safety measures, to low wages for long hours, no guarantee of work, misconduct, gender discrimination, and no entitlement to welfare, to name but a few. The centre educates workers about their legal entitlements and encourages them to unite and to organize unions so they can take a collective stand.’

Mary’s motivation for getting involved in such challenging work was simple. ‘To help others in need. Living in a patriarchal society where female discrimination is deeply entrenched in the culture, I too was subject to the overbearing pressure that the majority of females still face in India, to remain submissive and follow family and cultural orders. The protection of children has been a particular passion of mine, because of my own childhood experiences. As the second female child born into my family, my father saw me as yet another financial burden and had no interest in sending me to school. But thanks to the help of a local teacher, who pressurized my parents to register me in her school, I was able to begin my formal education when I was seven years old (relatively young compared to the children I work with today). Like many children, I too helped with the family work. 

‘From the age of five, I was working in our family fields, rearing the goats, grazing and milking the cattle. From the age of 13 or 14, I was working on construction sites in the evenings to help my father: I carried bricks and stones, which was considered adult work. At times I suffered physical abuse from my father – he would frequently order me to leave home. When I was 15 he forced me out and I ended up living in a hostel. Fortunately, after pressure from relatives, my father agreed to pay for my higher education. This vital opportunity allowed me to go on and earn my degree and masters. Realizing the importance of education to my wellbeing, I was motivated to help others who I knew were suffering from childhoods far worse than my own.

‘My main aim is to break down the barriers between men and women, and the social norms that are oppressing both in society. SAVE works to change cultural attitudes towards children’s education, women, social and workers’ rights. We have played a key role in achieving dramatic reductions in the levels of child labour. In the future, I hope that I can act as a role model for the children living under SAVE’s care so that they too take action and help protect future generations against human rights violations.’

Breaking through the social customs and attitudes which Mary believes are restricting the growth of her society has proved difficult. ‘Sometimes we make major advances in our work, rescuing children from their workplace, the streets, or their home and rehabilitating them; yet the parents or relatives come and take their children out of care so they can work for the family. They don’t understand that only through education can their child aspire to better employment opportunities and break out of the cycle of poverty and exploitation that they themselves are often suffering.’

Another challenge is convincing workers to join the trade unions despite their underlying fear: ‘Workers here lack a collective voice that’s strong enough to stand up for their rights against the major capitalists who are keeping their employees’ voices suppressed. As a result, trade unions have low membership and are not able to represent workers’ needs. Our staff sometimes receive verbal threats from those opposed to SAVE’s efforts to mobilize workers.’

Mary’s life has taken a very different path from that of the majority of women in India. She has built a career, but says she has had to sacrifice a married life in order to dedicate herself to her work. Her message is unequivocal: ‘We need to work for gender equality in all aspects and we need to fight against corruption.’

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