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Story highlights

Sitara was a child slave, made to work at a brick kiln in India

Bonded labor is prevalent across rural Uttar Pradesh

Voices4Freedom gives freed child slaves an education

Uttar Pradesh, India CNN  — 

Sitara isn’t sure how old she is. Her mother thinks 13; she reckons 15.

There’s no way of knowing for sure. Sitara has never had a birthday party. She doesn’t have a birth certificate. (She’s also never seen a TV, and she’s never heard of the internet.)

Sitara is still a child, but she hasn’t had a childhood. Instead, she’s spent years trapped in bonded labor. That’s NGO-speak for what is otherwise known as slavery, and it’s prevalent across rural Uttar Pradesh, an Indian state swelling with more than 200 million people.

Sitara was enslaved at the same brick kiln as her parents. She says the work was dusty, unforgiving, harsh. Her job was to carry bricks from one end of the kiln and stack them at the other end. Her hands are pockmarked with scars and calluses. Sitara’s parents were bonded laborers, and she was sucked in to help back their debt of 50,000 rupees (about $800).

More on modern slavery from the CNN Freedom Project

Sitara says she was routinely beaten at the brick kiln. Her mother Chamela tears up when she recalls watching her daughter being beaten. “What can you do when you’re in debt?” she says. “Her life was stolen from her.”

Bonded labor is modern slavery

Bonded labor is one of the most common forms of modern slavery in the world, according to the UN, although accurate figures aren’t available. It is illegal in India, but enforcement of the law is lax. Bonded laborers are often illiterate and not aware of their rights.

People living in poverty are particularly vulnerable; they can be forced to take a loan or advance from moneylenders just to meet their basic needs. Often, the only way they can pay it back is through their labor.

They are frequently exploited because they have no means of verifying the math on the usurious interest rates on their loans. That’s how families and children often get ensnared. The UN says bonded laborers are often subjected to long working hours, physical and psychological abuse, and violence.

These days, things are different for Sitara. She and her family are no longer enslaved at the kiln, and she’s now a top student at a school in her village that’s part of a program called Schools4Freedom.

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‘Parents will risk everything’

Peggy Callahan is the co-founder of Voices4Freedom, which runs and sponsors Schools4Freedom. Callahan says schools are vital in the rural villages affected by this kind of slavery.

“They’re all important because the parents will risk everything to try to get their kids educated,” she told CNN. “Even when the slaveholder is threatening them, they have the courage to do what it takes to free themselves and to get their kids educated.

“The bottom line is that education is the greatest vaccination against slavery, all over the world, and it is working miracles here.”

But the miracle isn’t complete. At the village we visited, while 84 people have been freed, Callahan says a few dozen people are still trapped in bonded labor. And that’s just one village – there are thousands like this one.

How do workers get freed? For some, like Sitara’s family, they eventually pay off their debts. Sometimes charities intervene, and sometimes the laborers themselves rise up and say no.

It isn’t always that easy. Twelve-year-old Pappu is still entrapped, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to get out.

“He comes here and beats me when I don’t show up,” says Pappu, referring to the kiln owner.

Pappu has scars all over his body. His fingers are almost sandpapered by brick. His nails are black with grime.

Aspiring to freedom

But they haven’t broken his spirit. Pappu says he sneaks in an hour a day at the classroom. At night he practices the alphabet in candlelight. He dreams of being a teacher someday. He tells me he looks at people like Sitara and knows that they are examples of freedom he can aspire to.

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Callahan tells me it’s only a matter of time before the entire village is free. Once a few people break out, it becomes harder and harder for kiln owners to enslave people. Information is power.

As I look at the lives of people like Sitara and Pappu, every day seems crushingly hard. Sitara cooks for the whole family at night because her parents work late. Pappu spends more than 10 hours a day at the kiln. Added to the work, it is almost like they are living in a bygone era, a time not only without electricity and running water, but also a time without basic rights and freedoms.

There are a million reasons for the children to despair. And yet. At the school, as I watch them dance to music in the afternoon, I can see hope.

The school sets an example for Sitara; the Sitaras set an example for the Pappus. It is the merest glimpse of freedom, but it is something. This is what can be.