The hidden cost of sugar: child brides and forced labor in Maharashtra

Forced to work exhausting shifts, sleep on the floor and undergo surgeries that have a devastating impact on their lives: what happens to women and girls in the sugar cane fields in India is horrifying. An investigation conducted by the NGO Fuller Project and the New York Times throws in our faces the infernal background of the production of sugar that ends up in well-known drinks such as Pepsi and Coca Cola...

What lies beneath the sugar used in famous beverages like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, crowding supermarket shelves? This ingredient, largely sourced from the Indian state of Maharashtra, carries a bitter aftertaste of unprecedented violence and exploitation. Here, the protection of children’s rights and health seems like a utopia.

Every day, thousands of women and girls are forced to work relentlessly, undergoing forced hysterectomies to keep up with the demands. Treated more like machines than humans, they are denied even the basic freedom to choose their spouses or decide on parenthood. For their employers, a woman’s womb is seen as an obstacle; this way, the “risk” of pregnancies and the inconvenience of menstruation are avoided in agricultural fields lacking shelters or sanitary facilities.

The brutal practice of uterus removal in Maharashtra’s slaves

The Fuller Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to reporting stories that give voice to women, in collaboration with The New York Times shed light on this hellish reality through an extensive investigation in Maharashtra. This state is part of a veritable system of slavery, with no agreed working hours or rights. Instead of receiving wages, women often work to repay their employers for the “privilege” of taking leave, even for health reasons, without having to pay fines.

Shocking stories have emerged from Maharashtra, India’s second-largest sugar producer, which supplies major Western companies and multinationals, notably PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Company. The heart of this exploitation beats in the Beed district, a rural and impoverished area hosting a large migrant population that harvests sugarcane. A local government report found that about one in five of the 82,000 female workers interviewed had undergone a hysterectomy.

Chaure, a woman who has spent much of her life working for NSL Sugars, one of the beverage multinationals’ suppliers, shared her story. At 30, she has been working in sugarcane fields since she was a preteen and was married at just 14. Last winter, she did what many women in her position are forced to do: undergo a hysterectomy to continue working and support her children.

The excruciating pain and irregular menstruation made it difficult for her to keep working, especially as she, like many other women, spent long hours bent over and carrying heavy loads on her head. Even rest is not rejuvenating, as they sleep on the ground after exhausting days often ending past midnight.

The ultrasound showed ovarian cysts, but the surgeon suggested a hysterectomy as the only solution. The high cost of sanitary pads and the lack of water for washing are additional problems that many women face.

“All their problems are related to their personal hygiene and their economic condition. They have to work so hard,” explains Dr. Ashok Belkhode, a gynecologist specializing in this field.

Child brides of the sugarcane fields

Indian sugarcane field workers cannot even enjoy their adolescence. Many, around the age of 14, find themselves married to much older men, as was the case for Chaure, who had to abandon her dream of becoming a nurse after leaving her village school to work in sugarcane cultivation.

“I was scared to get married; I was really frightened,” she confesses.

Although child marriage is prohibited in India and considered a human rights violation internationally, it remains deeply entrenched, especially among those working in Maharashtra’s sugar sector.

The responses from PepsiCo and Coca Cola

The Fuller Project and The New York Times have made it clear that sugar producers and buyers have been aware of the exploitation and violence for years. Coca-Cola consultants, for instance, have visited the fields and sugar mills in India and reported children cutting sugarcane and workers repaying their employers. Following a recent investigation by The Fuller Project and The New York Times, PepsiCo confirmed that one of its major international affiliates purchases sugar from Maharashtra and has opened its third production and bottling plant there, while a new Coca-Cola factory is under construction in the state.

Both companies use the sugar primarily for products sold in India, according to industry officials. They have codes of conduct that prohibit suppliers and business partners from resorting to child and forced labor. PepsiCo has acknowledged the deeply troubling description of the working conditions of sugarcane cutters in Maharashtra and committed to engaging with its franchise partners to assess the working conditions and any necessary actions. Coca-Cola Company, however, has declined to respond to a detailed list of questions.

The article draws upon studies published and recommendations from international institutions and/or experts. We do not make claims in the medical-scientific field and report the facts as they are. Sources are indicated at the end of each article.
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