When Simpsonville resident David Moorhead first visited India in 2012, it left a lasting impression.
“I was so destroyed when I got back home that I couldn’t even speak with my own wife. It was like I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or something,” said Moorhead. “I couldn’t stop thinking about all the kids who had been taken from their homes and forced into slavery. I just couldn’t process it.”
Although officially abolished by the Indian government almost four decades ago, the practice of bonded child labor is on the rise, especially in rural areas.
It’s estimated that 13 million children, between the ages of 5 and 14, are forced to work in the country’s stone quarries, fields, factories, brothels, and private households.
Many of the children are sold to employers by their own families in an attempt to pay off debts. On average, they spend four years in slavery. But some of them never escape due to high interest rates and low wages, eventually passing the debt to a younger sibling, parent, or their own child.
Moorhead witnessed firsthand the country’s struggle with child slavery when he met Praveen Chakravarthy, president of the Sylom Pastors League, a group of more than 2,000 pastors who rescue children from slavery and care for them.
For years, Chakravarthy delivered food, water, and clothing to enslaved children at stone quarries across Andhra Pradesh, one of the largest states in South India.
In 2011, after pleading with government officials to enforce laws against slavery, more than 800 children were freed. Most of the them were reunited with their families, but for those who couldn’t remember where they were from or whom their parents were, Chakravarthy placed them in leased properties and churches.
Inspired by Chakravarthy’s work, Moorhead returned home in 2012 and left his 20-year career in mortgage banking to found Set Free Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides financial support for the Sylom Pastors League.
Set Free Alliance has raised more than $10 million over the past five years to help Chakravarthy’s group provide food, water, shelter, clothing, medical care, and basic education for more than 1,300 rescued children. “Our job is to support Praveen. He’s the real hero,” Moorhead said.
The Sylom Pastors League also uses the funds from Set Free Alliance to provide training in sewing, welding, carpentry, and various other trades. More than 300 young adults have graduated from the program and entered India’s workforce since 2013.
Moorhead said graduates usually change their names to conceal their status as an “untouchable,” a discriminatory social classification for individuals who are considered unworthy of being part of India’s Hindu caste system.
“‘Untouchables’ are considered outcasts and impure. They live in a cycle of poverty that’s inescapable,” Moorhead said. “Our graduates on average earn an income that’s 10 times larger than what an untouchable usually earns. We give them a chance at life.”
Set Free Alliance also recently funded the construction of a 180,000-square-foot campus on 6 acres in Andhra Pradesh to house children who have been rescued by the Sylom Pastors League.
The three-building campus, which opened earlier this year, includes a cafeteria, kitchen, pantry, medical center, classrooms, bathrooms, offices, and dorms. It can house up to 2,000 children, said Moorhead.
Like most nonprofits, Set Free Alliance relies on private donors, foundations, and sponsors to cover operational expenses, ranging from salaries and travel to office rent and fundraising events. That includes the nonprofit’s annual Keys to Freedom Gala at the TD Convention Center in Greenville. This year’s gala, held in September, raised $1.3 million to support the Sylom Pastors League.
Moorhead said 100 percent of all public donations are sent to the Sylom Pastors League. “We send them money every month and allow them to spend it how they see fit. But we do get monthly expense reports from Praveen.”
Set Free Alliance also receives donations from young adults who have graduated from the vocational training program. More than 200 graduates have donated $198,000 since 2013, according to Moorhead, but the nonprofit still has many needs.
“Our biggest challenge is food,” Moorhead said. “We work hard to raise as much money as we can every month, but we have a lot of mouths to feed. It can cost $250,000 a month to feed one bowl of rice a day to 6,000 rescued children.”
The food shortage has especially impacted the nonprofit’s ability to care for pregnant mothers, according to Moorhead. Last year, Chakravarthy’s group rescued 80 girls, between the ages of 13 and 15, who had been sexually abused. More than 50 of those girls experienced miscarriages because of their young age and malnourishment.
The U.S. government puts the total number of children victimized by commercial sexual exploitation in India at 1.2 million. Andhra Pradesh accounts for nearly half of all sex trafficking cases in India, the majority involving adolescent girls. According to police estimates, 300,000 women and girls have been trafficked for exploitative sex work from Andhra Pradesh; of these, just 3,000 have been rescued.
Moorhead said many employers across India abuse female slaves. Unfortunately, like many developing countries, labor laws are disregarded. In 2012, for instance, the Indian government passed a bill to ban all work by children under 14. But the Cabinet later approved a loophole that would allow them to work in “family enterprises,” which are often fronts for sex trafficking and slavery.
Set Free Alliance plans to continue its fight against child slavery by funding the construction of additional campuses across India, according to Moorhead.
“The goal is to expand outside of Andhra Pradesh, because Indian law won’t allow us to transport children across state lines,” he said. “The infrastructure is already there. We just need to boost our support here first and raise the money.”
For more information, visit setfreealliance.org.