This nun from Belgium made many Indians aware of the ubiquitous practice of domestic child labour 25 years ago. Sister Jeanne Devos began her journey from Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, spreading the movement for the liberation of children engaged in domestic labour across the country. One of the 1,000 women nominees for the Nobel peace prize in 2005, the 85-year-old social activist tells Lavanya M. that every time she sees children who have fought against all odds to lead a normal life, she gains more strength.
“People should hear the voices of these brave children and know their dreams,” says Sister Jeanne Devos, pointing to a group of children who have been rescued from domestic labour.
She founded the National Domestic Worker's Movement (NDWM) which is involved in rescuing, rehabilitating and fighting for the rights of child domestic workers.
Sr. Devos, who arrived in 1953 to explore “mystical India”, was initially drawn towards working with children with disability. But her life changed and she found her true calling when she met a 13-year-old girl in Dindugul who had been impregnated by her employer.
“In a few days I tried to reach the girl, but I was told that the lady in the house had forced her to abort as it was a matter of dignity for the employer's family. That was when I realised that these children do not have security or support from parents, family or the society,” she says, reflecting on her initial days of struggle for the cause. “These children come out of so much hardship and abuse, and are yet so resilient and joyful.”
When she approached the Maharashtra government many years ago to bring their attention to these suffering children, it denied the existence of such an issue in India.
“They told me that these children are an adopted part of the employee's family even though their adversities were out in the open,” she recalls.
Sr. Devos, who is now based in Mumbai, travels frequently to Chennai.
Over the years, she mobilised people in Maharashtra and the movement also spread to the north-east. “There is an unseen positive energy that pushed it, as help and volunteers arrived from various corners of the country,” she says. “But it was only in 2005 when the World Bank came out with a report on the state of these children in India, that the existence of child labour acknowledged.”
“A lot more needs to be done. We should not let the government sleep,” she says, her wizened face revealing conviction.
“Now we are working towards improving social security such as pension schemes, health schemes, and educational scholarships for the children's parents,” she says.
She was awarded the Crown Order, Belgium's highest honour for distinguished service.
Her life has impacted and empowered thousands of young hearts and remains a source of inspiration. “But I wish it was millions of lives,” she says with a radiant smile.