Many years ago, when Thivya Rakini was working as a domestic violence activist helping women to escape abusive husbands across the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, she took a pair of scissors and cut her long black hair back to the nape of her neck.
“Without my hair, I suddenly looked very frightening to a lot of people who couldn’t believe a woman would cut away her femininity like that,” she says. “I was sending a signal that that those men shouldn’t try to mess with me. Inside, I am really a very tender-hearted person but to survive I have learned that I must appear fearless.”
Rakini – a former nun, divorcee, domestic violence survivor and now union leader – has done a lot with her 42 years. She smashed cultural taboos and became a social pariah for choosing to leave her marriage and bring up her son as a single mother in a remote part of a deeply traditional and caste-bound state.
Now, in her role as president of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), Tamil Nadu’s only female-led garment workers union, she has turned her attention to the multibillion-pound global fashion industry.
Such is her reputation locally that, despite her hair growing long again, her appearance is often enough to strike fear into the hearts of garment factory owners across the Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu where the TTCU is based. “When they see me, they turn pale and run inside,” she laughs. “They tell their workers: ‘Don’t you be talking to her – she’s trouble.’ They try to shut their gates against me but I’ll always find a way in if there are women inside that need our help.”
Rakini talks to textile workers in Thennapatty village, Dindigul city. Photograph: Sivaram V/The Guardian
Since 2015, Rakini and the TTCU have been fighting what she describes as a “plague” of rape, harassment and sexual violence that has infested global garment supply chains and is being perpetrated on poor women making clothing destined for high streets across the UK.
“As a woman, everything I have done with my life is a source of shame to someone,” she says. “But it has given me freedom to fight on issues such as gender-based violence that are still covered in silence and stigma. I am not afraid to take it out of the shadows and say: ‘This is wrong.’”
Tamil Nadu, a major centre of Indian textile production, is one of the country’s economic powerhouses and home to tens of thousands of garment factories and cotton mills. It is also notorious for the poor wages and bleak conditions imposed on its largely female workforce.
Rakini (centre) with colleagues at the TTCU’s offices. Photograph: Sivaram V/The Guardian
When Rakini joined the TTCU in 2014, it was a nascent organisation with just a few union leaders trying to help women organise and call for better conditions in their factories. She came on board to help deal with the huge levels of domestic violence that workers were facing. The union office soon become a makeshift shelter for women and their children who had nowhere else to go.
“At that time, we were blocked from most workplaces because many factories didn’t allow workers to join unions and the unions that were active were all run by men,” says Rakini. “Yet women suffering from domestic violence were also telling us about the terrible things they were experiencing in the workplace at the hands of their supervisors and male employees. So it became our mission to try and put a stop to this.”
In her seven years at the TTCU, Rakini has seen enough to pour scorn on the insistence of many global fashion brands that they do everything in their power to protect the millions of poor black and brown women working in garment supply chains. “The truth is that sexual harassment, rape, even murder has become part and parcel of the lives of women working in garment factories in my district,” she says. “International brands who buy from Tamil Nadu know very well that women in their supply chains are exploited to the core, they know the impact that their production targets and their poverty wages have on the workers’ lives. Their auditors know their inspections are meaningless. Their whole system is a lie.”
The TTCU began taking on cases of sexual harassment and abuse that none of the larger unions would touch. “In those factories, the women have no power. They are often the main breadwinners for their family and although their pay is meagre, they must keep their jobs at all costs. They feel they have to do whatever their bosses demand of them,” Rakini explains. “When we first started going to the factories to complain, the management would just kick us out. They didn’t care.”
Just over a year ago, in February 2021, Rakini got a phone call from the family of a young garment worker called Jeyasre Kathiravel, who had failed to come home from her shift at Natchi Apparels, a local clothes factory supplying brands including H&M. Rakini says that she had already approached Natchi Apparels in 2019 after women complained about being sexually harassed, but had been told not to get involved in factory business.
After Kathiravel’s disappearance, Rakini and the TTCU say they once again tried to approach Natchi Apparels, this time about Kathiravel’s disappearance but were rebuffed. Four days later, her body was found in farmland close to her village.
Rakini outside the home of murdered textile worker Jeyasre Kathiravel. Photograph: The Guardian
Her supervisor at Natchi Apparels was arrested shortly afterwards and her grieving family claimed that he had been inflicting relentless sexual harassment and abuse on their daughter in the months leading up to her death, but that she had felt unable to stop what was happening. He has since confessed to her murder and is in jail awaiting trial.
In the weeks after the murder, despite threats and intimidation from the factory management, Rakini and the TTCU leaders spent weeks travelling between garment worker villages, taking testimonies from dozens of other women who said that they had been raped, coerced and intimidated into sexual relationships with their managers at Natchi Apparels.
At the time, the management at Natchi Apparels denied that there was any violence against female workers at its factory. It has since said that while it still disputes some of the claims, it has taken all the allegations seriously and as a result has “created systems, processes, and procedures to protect and promote the rights of female workers”.
“It was a very painful time because the workers said that they were coming under a lot of pressure from the factory over Jeysare’s death and they were scared of losing their jobs, yet they wanted to speak out about what they were experiencing as they were all terrified they would end up like her,” says Rakini. “Asking women to tell their stories of gender-based violence is a big responsibility and we understood the risks that they were taking and the trust that they were putting in us.”
Rakini with textile workers at Thennapatty village. Photograph: Sivaram V/The Guardian
The sad truth, Rakini says, is that there is nothing particularly unusual about the levels or severity of sexual violence that were found at Natchi Apparels. She says that over the past five years, the TTCU has received dozens of reports of deaths, rape, physical assault and sexual harassment from workers at garment factories across the district. Yet the impact of the statements collected by Rakini and her TTCU colleagues in the weeks after Kathiravel’s death has been immense.
As a result of those testimonies and an independent investigation into sexual violence at the factory, its client H&M agreed to enter into negotiations with the TTCU and international labour groups. The TTCU helped negotiate a series of agreements at Natchi Apparels with both H&M and Eastman Exports, the company that owns Natchi. Last month, a year after Kathiravel’s death, a series of legally binding agreements that aim to eliminate all gender-based violence and harassment from the factory floor were signed.
“This is the first agreement of its kind in India and has the power to save women’s lives,” says Rakini. TTCU members will sit on the internal complaints committee and act as monitors on the factory floor, to supervise the supervisors and to help ensure a zero-tolerance approach to violence in the workplace.
Since the news of the agreement that has been reached at Natchi, the TTCU has been inundated with requests from women at other factories begging it to come to their aid. “This is just the start,” she says.
Rakini has faced death threats and harassment. She was nearly driven off the road when investigating the disappearance of two workers
Rakini’s fearlessness in taking on the might of Tamil Nadu’s garment industry is extraordinary considering the mafia-like hold that textile companies exert over garment-worker communities. She and her TTCU colleagues have faced death threats and harassment and she says that she was nearly driven off the road while riding her scooter, when investigating the disappearance of two workers from a cotton-spinning mill.
Yet she is undaunted. “In my own life, all my struggles I’ve faced alone,” she says. “Now, at TTCU, for these women, I want to be the person I needed when I had nobody to turn to.”
Rakini was born in a small rural village in Dindigul, in the south of Tamil Nadu. Her father was a brick kiln worker turned local entrepreneur who ran a biscuit factory out of their home. One of five daughters, she was the only one to get an education after she waged a campaign of attrition against her parents to be allowed to go to the local convent school.
“I greatly admired my father but we were all afraid of him,” she says. “He was very strict and it was very unusual for daughters to be educated. All my sisters had left school by the time they were 10 so it was a struggle to convince him.”
Rakini persevered, even going on hunger strike. When her father finally relented, he went around the community asking people to help raise money to pay her fees. She loved the routine and discipline of the convent school, as well as the faith and serenity of the nuns. When she was 18, she decided to join the religious order and spent seven years training to become a nun at the convent. Yet, one year before her training ended, she grew disillusioned with the order after witnessing her abbess turn away a desperate woman and her baby who came begging for help.
“I realised that I couldn’t stay in a place where they would turn away the most vulnerable,” she says. “I felt a duty to God and to my family, but a greater duty to that woman who came in desperation but was turned away.”
When she left the order and tried to return home, her family turned against her. “My father said to my mother: ‘I’ll cut her into pieces,’ because I had brought great shame on them,” she says.
Rakini with Jayasre Kathiravel’s parents. Photograph: Sivaram V/The Guardian
Rakini further enraged her community when she decided to marry a man without her family’s permission. “It was unheard of for a woman to do such a thing. It was seen as a great insult to my family,” she says. “After that, I wasn’t a daughter to them any more.”
She had a child but, soon after, she says her husband and his family started brutally beating her. “I hadn’t brought a dowry so my mother-in-law said I was worthless,” she says. She claims they poured boiling food over her and kicked her on the ground as her baby son lay beside her.
I have struggled to support us both as a single mother, but I have never once regretted my decision to leave my husband
“One day, I just thought: ‘They’ll kill me and I have so much more living to do,’” she says. “I left the house and the next day I went to my son’s creche and picked him up and we ran away. Since then, it has just been the two of us. Over the years we have faced great harassment and stigma, and I have struggled to support us both as a single mother, but I have never once regretted my decision. I am the only one that runs my own life.”
Now, her goals as president of the TTCU are to extend the union’s reach into more factories across the region and get other international brands buying from factories in Tamil Nadu to sign similar agreements as that now at place at Natchi Apparels. “We are a very small union, in a very remote area, far away from where most of the clothes our members make are sold. Yet we have shown what can be achieved if you act fearlessly in the face of oppression and refuse to be silenced,” she says.
“I have known my own power my whole life. Now, I want other women to understand that they, too, deserve to live a life where they don’t have to be scared. We are all human and our voices all deserve to be heard.”