The girl called Jeevti was just 14 when she taken from her family in the night to be married off to a man who says her family owed him $1,000. Her mother, Ameri Kashi Kohli, is sure that her daughter paid the price for a never-ending debt. Ameri says she and her husband borrowed roughly $500 when they first began to work on the land, but she throws up her hands and says the debt was repaid.
It's a familiar story here in southern Pakistan: Small loans balloon into impossible debts, bills multiply, payments are never deducted. In this world, women like Ameri and her young daughter are treated as property: taken as payment for a debt, to settle disputes, or as revenge if a landowner wants to punish his worker. Sometimes parents, burdened by an unforgiving debt, even offer their daughters as payment. The women are like trophies to the men. They choose the prettiest, the young and pliable. Sometimes they take them as second wives to look after their homes. Sometimes they use them as prostitutes to earn money. Sometimes they take them simply because they can.
"I went to the police and to the court. But no one is listening to us,“ says Ameri, who is Hindu. She says the land manager made her daughter convert to Islam and took the girl as his second wife. "They told us, 'Your daughter has committed to Islam and you can't get her back.“ More than 2 million Pakistanis live as "modern slaves," according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, which ranks Pakistan in the top three offending countries that still enslave people, some as farm workers, others at brick kilns or as household staff. Sometimes the workers are beaten or chained to keep them from fleeing. "They have no rights, and their women and girls are the most vulnerable," says Ghulam Hayder, whose Green Rural Development Organization works to free Pakistan's bonded laborers.
An estimated 1,000 young girls, most of them underage and impoverished, are taken from their homes each year, converted to Islam and married, said a report by the South Asia Partnership organization.
The family turned to activist Veero Kohli to help free the girl. Kohli was born a slave and since fleeing bondage in 1999, she has devoted herself to challenging Pakistan's powerful landowners, liberating thousands of families from bonded labor.