If you are a woman born into poverty, without an education or skill, how do you earn a living? The answer usually includes a path not willingly chosen by the individual. Many women and young girls have no choice but to turn to work that does not pay a fair wage and often threatens their health. This is a familiar scenario to Anchal’s artisans. One way or another, they were forced into the commercial sex trade. This was not a choice, but rather a means of survival.
I recently read an article on the CNN Freedom Project blog that described the harsh realities of the beedi industry. The beedi is a traditional hand-rolled Indian cigarette, which makes up nearly half of India’s entire tobacco market. The maker places tobacco in a dried leaf and rolls it tightly before securing it with a string.
I was fairly familiar with the product and process because several of our artisans previously earned money making them at home. I knew that it did not pay well and was painstakingly tedious work but I was unaware of the severity of the industry.
Mothers and daughters gather for 10 to 14 hours daily; racing to roll at least 1,000 beedis; only to earn a sum of less than $2 a day. While the manufacturers make billions of dollars and the middlemen are comfortable, there are millions of invisible women and children trapped in a modern day economic slavery.
Shanu makes the conditions clear, “The pressure to keep up with the speed and meet the target is so intense that many skip their meals and even avoid drinking water so they do not need to go to the toilet.”
The visible health impact is undeniable. Workers of all ages develop tuberculosis, asthma, and chronic pain related to postural problems. They also absorb high doses of nicotine through their fingertips, resulting in permanent damage by age 40. Mahboobjan states, “My hands often swell up. I don’t know what I will do if I can’t roll beedi anymore.”
However, the most damaging for beedi workers is the lack of rights, opportunity, and support from anyone. They fight to feed their families with extreme labor conditions, only to feel no protection or alternative.
When will we stand up to slavery? Women of the world need to support each other in creating change. Whether we are asking for equality in the workplace or an end to exploitation, we must start by speaking up together!
Check out the full article here.