Updated: Sep 8, 2020
“How awfully fine he looked! A regular landlord with clean linen and swell shoes! They were no common stuff! His wife, at all events, knew how to keep the pot boiling” L'Assommoir By Emile Zola
I had just come back from a trip to Dubai where Greg and I were sharing about the work of Freedom Firm. I sat with Catherine Raja (CEO of Ruhamah Designs), catching up about the events of the past week. The phone rang; it was Sangeetha's husband, Raj. I could hear his voice on the phone, angry and threatening. Catherine listened for a second and then responded firmly in Hindi. Her face changed as he argued. I could hear his voice over the phone filling the small office.
“Where is Sangeetha? She hasn't arrived. If you don't send her back, I'll come down to Ooty and you'll see what I'll do.”
Catherine's voice rose in exasperation. “Raj, if you come to the office we will file a police complaint against you. Your wife is on the way back to you, she left her job at Ruhamah Designs.”
Raj swore and threatened some more. Catherine hung up the phone.
Sangeetha was rescued many years ago by Freedom Firm from the brothels. Already married as a young teenager, with two children, her husband Raj trafficked her to a brothel when he fell in love with another woman.
After a three year stint in Freedom Firm in the Ruhamah Designs workshop in Ooty, she had left the program and re-joined Raj. We didn't hear from her for another three years. We know now that during those years he lived off her earnings, whether from prostitution, a sweatshop, or other menial labor is unclear.
With no warning, Sangeetha showed up in Ooty with Raj and her two children. We found housing for them, promised to re-hire Sangeetha, and found several jobs for Raj. However, a month went by and Sangeetha never showed up to work at Ruhamah and Raj found fault with every job he tried. Hard work was clearly not uppermost on their minds; they were content with charity. When we realized their mentality, we stopped helping and they left town quickly, telling everyone that Freedom Firm would pay the debts they left behind.
Over the last year, Sangeetha called us hundreds of times. “I am coming in a week to work for Ruhamah, can you find me a house? Catherine Raja spoke patiently with her every time. “Sangeetha, if you come back you are welcome, but we will not arrange a house for you. You can stay for free at Saras Trust (a local government-funded hostel) until you save enough money to rent a small house for yourself.”
In anger, she disconnected the call. The next day she called again, “I am coming now, with my husband Raj, will you find him a job?” I am coming with my son Amol, can you place him in school?” Other scenarios played out on the phone, each carefully constructed, manufactured, and designed to test all of us. The unspoken question, every time was, “How much will I get for free.”
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, she did it. Placing her children in boarding schools, she boarded a bus in Andhra Pradesh and traveled to Ooty. She moved into Saras Trust on Friday. On Saturday she came to horse therapy. On Sunday she started crying in the hostel, saying she missed her children too much to stay in Ooty. On Monday, she was still upset but started the day working at Ruhamah Designs. As the hours passed she became more frantic to leave.
Our social workers spent hours that day counseling Sangeetha to give it a little more time. We encouraged her to bring her children to Ooty. By noon Raj began calling. He demanded that we send her home immediately. It became clear that he thought we had given her money.
Finally, Sangeetha told the truth. Her husband had pushed and cajoled her for the last year to go and make money at Ruhamah Designs. He preferred not to work, and the family was desperately poor. Sangeetha wanted to work for Ruhamah Designs, but she didn't want to give her salary to her husband. “You should have told us that before Sangeetha,” Catherine said. “Of course you should not work here and then give all your earnings to your husband. We are here to support you.”
After just one working day, Sangeetha got back on the bus and left Ooty. She planned to leave Raj so she could stop handing over money to him. Two days ago she called and asked us to pray. Raj was now working and she had applied for a factory job. Her life is as uncertain as the sea, ever-changing, but, there is a glimmer of hope. They seem motivated to work.
We are faced with the fact that this time Sangeetha is not a victim. She willingly left her good job and reunited with the man who had sold her to the brothel. No one forced her; she knew better. We aren't here to break up families, neither are we here to fund lazy men. We believe that holding fast to our principles of offering employment, not charity, will encourage rescued women and their families towards industry and self-reliance.