Not everyone is born free; most have to fight for freedom. Trapped in modern-day slavery, Veeru Kohli fought for hers and in the process became a guardian of freedom for others.
Born to a hari (landless peasant farmer) in Allahdino Shah village in the tiny town of Jhudo, Kohli was married off to a family bonded to their landlord at the age of 16. Kohli’s in-laws took a loan from their relatives and freed themselves from enslavement only to start working for another more oppressive landlord in Umerkot. “After working as a bonded labourer for a few years, I decided I couldn’t live my entire life like this and managed a dramatic escape,” recalls Kohli.
One day when Kohli was not being supervised, she made a run for it. “I walked barefoot in the scorching heat all the way from Umerkot to a nearby village where my brother lived. By the time I got to his place, my feet were bleeding with thorns in them,” she recalls. The local police soon found Kohli and forced her to go back to the landlord and even beat her up. She was threatened to be raped and killed but being the strong-willed person that she is, Kohli took a stand and told the police she would rather die than go with them. She sat at the police station for three days and demanded freedom. Eventually they gave up and let her go.
Being one of the few fortunate ones to escape bonded labour, Kohli realised the basic yet crucial need for freedom. There onwards began her mission to free others like herself. “Nobody deserves to live a life like this. It is so harsh that a normal person cannot even begin to imagine it. Since I have lived and escaped it, I want to free others so they too can experience what I have now,” says Kohli.
There were many hurdles in Kohli’s path but her determination fuelled the journey that lay ahead. First, she had to overcome the language barrier that stood between her and the people she was desperate to help. Being a native Saraiki speaker, she approached the Green Rural Development Organization (GRDO) to help her learn Urdu. Once she conquered the hurdle of communication, she began preparing formal cases with lawyers and arranging for funds to bear all costs linked to the case, which can range anywhere between Rs5,000 and Rs20,000. The GRDO was also instrumental to Kohli’s mission as they provided financial assistance to fight the cases.
Kohli was soon joined by others in her fight, assuring her she was not alone. Despite belonging to a minority religion, she found help from across faiths. She had freed nearly 400 people from bonded labour when the international community took note of her efforts. Connecting via a local NGO, Oxfam invited her to speak in Los Angeles at their Raise her Voice programme. “I was scared [to travel] initially. However, when I went there, they made me feel at home and gave me so much respect that I regained my confidence. It was really surprising for me to see a foreign country so interested in my cause and helping me achieve it further,” says Kohli.
While her efforts are lauded worldwide, Kohli faces friction in her own country. “The government here belongs to the landlords with nobody to speak up for minorities. Just this year, my son was locked up in prison so they could stop me from raising my voice, but I have dedicated my life to this cause and it is so close to my heart,” she shares. Taking her crusade to the next level, Kohli aims to become a representative in the provincial assembly someday with one attempt already under her belt.
Hafsah Sarfraz is an Islamabad-based reporter for The Express Tribune.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 13th, 2015.