“When I went to work, there was some respect,” says Vasandi. “People said, ‘Okay, these girls are earning money.’”
But Mr. Samy argues that the mills are preying on his community, and reinforcing the idea that these factory jobs are the best these girls can hope for. “Only higher education is going to change things,” he says.
Mr. Samy himself has a master’s degree in social work, but he remains a rarity in a caste group where tens of thousands of people still work in “manual scavenging” – collecting and disposing of human excrement.
“These companies interrupt the education of these girls, and exploit them,” he says. “We need work, but not for under-18-year-olds.”
‘I’m too old to go back to school’
Divya Naharaj was 14 and just past third grade (with illiterate parents and teachers who rarely showed up at school, she had struggled to get even that far) when an agent came to her two-room house in the village of Mangalapuram to talk to her.
“He told me, ‘Your uncle’s daughter is working there and you can also go and your family’s problems will be solved,’” she said. “My parents have only coolie work, so they don’t earn much, and they have three daughters” – so a hefty dowry bill loomed on their horizon.
Ms. Naharaj went to the S. M. Mill in Shakti in January, 2010, learned to operate a knitting loom, and stuck it out for 19 months, working a cycle of four days of night shifts and seven days of day shifts, with a day off in between. She described her time at the mill in a grim, flat voice.
When she left to start working, Ms. Naharaj didn’t imagine she was leaving school forever. “I had the plan to go back to school after the mill, but I haven’t. I wanted to be a teacher, but now I’m too old to go back to school and sit with all the small children.”
Some textile companies offer continuing education classes to support workers to finish high school, as Ms. Naharaj’s did – but only after a 10- or 12-hour shift. “I wanted to go to class. But it was that or sleeping. And I was so tired.” The closest she got to school was to take magazines and joke books out of the library.
These days she does housework; her two younger sisters go to school and her parents work in the fields until after dark.
Ms. Kowtal of the Dalit Women’s Rights Forum says the Somongali scheme perpetuates the idea that a woman’s worth is in her marriage, and that she is a financial burden to her family. But she isn’t surprised to see it so openly marketed, because the Tamil Nadu government does it too – offering four grams of gold and $500 of “marriage assistance” to any girl who completes high school.
The state’s chief minister, Jayalalitha, triumphantly introduced the plan a couple of years ago as part of a spate of measures she claimed would boost the status of women, openly defying the national dowry ban.
Ms. Kotwal calls this a classic Indian paradox: The country has excellent laws on paper, but zero enforcement when it comes to the interests of the poor, marginalized or out-caste.
One reason the mills like the scheme, READ’s Mr. Samy says, is that the teenage female workers can all be classed as apprentices, and thus by law can’t organize into labour unions.
READ attempts to advocate for them; for example, it is trying to help Vasandi get her withheld wages. It also tries to give young women who leave the mills job training – the state government is supposed to provide them low-interest loans to start small businesses, but the reality is that most get married when they go home, and do not do paid work again, except in landlords’ fields.
Vasandi is learning to stitch clothes, but she is also waiting for a wedding. “My parents are looking for a boy,” she says, ducking her head shyly.
And her parents will borrow money to pay her dowry – a big pile of rupees.
Read more pieces from the Breaking Caste series here