When Syeda Ghulam Fatima was just a teenager, she saw something no child should ever have to see—slavery. She was surrounded by people whose hollow faces reflected the pain of losing their humanity, people whose self-respect had been stripped away relentlessly by the constant anguish of slave labor. Their dignity had been stolen in the brick kilns of Pakistan, where they were forced to work at gunpoint from dawn to dusk, with no mercy. Young children, elders, men, women—all of them tortured at the hands of wealthy kiln owners who raped them, controlled them, left them to suffer in poverty without food or clothing.
These were images Syeda couldn’t forget. And so she found her vocation: “I decided that I should take care of them. I should struggle and I should work for them. I desire to save further children, the next generation, from slavery.”
Syeda knows her family worries about her because she is in constant danger. Brick kiln owners have attacked her viciously, accusing her of sabotaging their businesses. They have electrocuted her, shot at her, threatened and beaten her. While they continue to fight Syeda’s efforts, they haven’t broken her.
On the contrary, Syeda has spent years creating hope through the nonprofit organization she leads, the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, which seeks to eradicate bonded labor, injustice, illiteracy, inequality and the resulting poverty across South Asia. And 80,000 people have her to thank for freeing them from slavery.
“I resolved to get them out of bondage and out of those conditions,” Syeda says. “And from that moment, the love and affection of the workers inspired me to put my life at risk for their safety, and the smiles and prayers of these slaves after they are freed is the source of my resolve.”
Syeda considers her work far from over. The experience of long-term abuse is a lasting wound; she recalls one young girl, of four, who was unable to eat, or even cry, for several weeks after being brought to safety. Syeda later learned the girl had been beaten by a kiln owner every time she cried for food.
To help victims actually recover from such abuse, Syeda says, there is a need for a comprehensive structure that provides mental health care, education, protection and legal counsel. This will help freed workers understand their rights and learn alternative skills they can use to find better employment. Through her own organization, she has built a network of Freedom Centers and runs seven informal schools, where several hundred students embark on new lives.
With each person Syeda helps, she hopes to change the landscape to prevent others from falling into slavery in the future. She’s already making an impact; the Punjab government in Pakistan now recognizes the need to address bonded child labor at brick kilns and has enacted a ground-breaking Women’s Protection Bill and Child Protection Ordinance as a result.
While Syeda is proud of this achievement, she’s not satisfied. There are still 4.5 million workers who need help and protection throughout the brick kiln industry. She would like to build at least four more Freedom Centers in other provinces of Pakistan, and ultimately to expand her efforts beyond the brick kiln industry, which is just one of many sectors with deplorable working conditions.
“I work for the most neglected community,” she says. “Every third girl is humiliated by her owner, a victim of rape in the brick kiln, in slavery. Every third girl. So I want to free them, all children. I want to educate them, I want to empower them. That’s my dream.”
Syeda Ghulam Fatima was a finalist for the inaugural Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. On behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, the annual Aurora Prize aims to raise public consciousness about atrocities occurring around the world and reward those working to address these major issues in a real and substantial manner. The Prize is awarded annually on April 24 in Yerevan, Armenia.