Names marked with an asterisk* in this piece have been changed to protect the interviewees’ anonymity.
Madurai, India – In a southern Indian village near Madurai, at around 1am one day in February 2010, Annam*, a daily wage labourer who lived with her bedridden husband, was shaken awake from her sleep by panicked neighbours.
“They were screaming that something had happened to my daughter,” said the now 60-year-old.
She ran to her daughter’s hut, two streets from her own, to find her child’s charred body outside, wrapped in several jute sacks.
She died six hours later in hospital from burn injuries.
Shortly afterwards, Annam’s son-in-law was arrested for murder.
He has now served two years of a life sentence in Madurai Central Prison.
After her daughter’s death, Annam took responsibility for her grandchildren, a girl and a boy then aged nine and six.
“For years, I did back-breaking work at construction sites and as an agricultural labourer to put them through school,” she said.
Annam earns about Rs120 ($1.66) a day.
When 17-year-old Pallavi* graduated, Annam could not afford to send her granddaughter to college.
That’s when KR Raja, a differently abled prison activist and social worker living in Madurai, stepped in to help.
“He said he had spoken to my father in prison, and wanted to find a way to help us,” said Pallavi. “At first, I just couldn’t believe it. Why would he care so much? But he sounded so kind and was persistent.”
Although Pallavi wanted to go to college, she knew it was impractical.
“I’d planned to take a tailoring job, but Raja said the GNE (his non-profit, the Global Network for Equality) would support me, and that I shouldn’t stop my studies. He helped me apply to several colleges, often travelling with us to meet the principal and to explain my situation.”
She is now enrolled at a college in Madurai and the GNE subsidises her tuition fees, amounting to Rs12,000 ($165) a year.
GNE also provides the family with living expenses each month.
“I never dreamed I’d go to college,” said Pallavi. “I feel so grateful to be in a better position to take care of my grandma and family when I graduate.”
On September 30, in the southern Indian suburb of Pudhur, a 60-year-old man fled his home in the middle of the night after killing his wife.
I've seen even hardened criminals change their behaviour after family visits. I tell them that while I can't promise to solve all their problems, I can promise to never let them face them alone.
Across the world, it has been estimated that around half of female victims of homicides are killed by partners or family members.
There are no statistics for the number of women killed by their spouses each year but, under Indian law, three categories – dowry deaths, encouragement of female suicide and death following cruelty by the husband – deal with the issue.
For an idea of the magnitude of the problem, National Crimes Records Bureau data from 2016 – the most recent available figures – show 39,723 cases of dowry death pending trial in court with 16,315 fresh cases registered that year.
There were 12,282 cases of abatement to suicide pending trial with 6,223 new cases registered. And 515,904 cases of cruelty by the husband pending trial, with 1,68,053 cases registered that year.
Children of prisoners are three times more likely to suffer from mental health problems, Raja told Al Jazeera, because of the shame, stigma and unresolved psychological issues they face in their impressionable years.
Supporting hundreds of children
Since 2012, he has made it his mission to seek out the children in family cases involving crime and murder.
For some, he ensures their safety. For others, his GNE organisation provides financial assistance and emotional support to help them get through school.
The level of financial support depends on the child’s needs and is paid in instalments, directly to the child’s or guardian’s bank account.
GNE has been operating for six years and currently supports over 200 destitute children of prisoners, aged between eight and 18.
The NGO focuses on those who were left parentless, essentially orphaned, after one parent murdered the other and ended up serving a life sentence.
Born in the southern Indian village of Kallakurichi, 300km from Madurai, Tamil Nadu, Raja is no stranger to adversity.
At eight months, the eldest son of an agriculturist was struck by a fever.
A local doctor treated Raja with a powerful concoction of medicines that left him paralysed.
Bedridden and unable to walk, his earliest memories are filled with the sacrifices his parents made.
“They sold property, almost invited financial ruin to ensure that I had good schooling and medical care,” he said.
At the age of five, he remembers how his mother, under psychological strain, laced a glass of milk with poison and suggested they both drink it.
“She said that if we both died, my father could marry again and start afresh. I knocked the glass out of her hands. I wanted to live, to lead a meaningful life. I told her I would take care of us all.”
In the years that followed, Raja struggled to secure his independence.
He endured painful physiotherapy to walk with the help of crutches. He challenged himself to keep a steady gait on muddy paddy fields and rocky village roads.
In 2010, he arrived at Puducherry Central Prison.
As a master’s student in social work at Puducherry University, for his final year thesis, he set out to interview 70 imprisoned men, many of whom had killed their wives in heated arguments.
Over the course of these interviews, Raja realised that they were ridden with anxiety over the fate of their children, some even begging him to check on them.
“I began tracing their children and reporting back to them and was struck by their relief and joy,” he says.
In 2010, measures for prison reform were set in motion by R Natraj, the then director-general of police and chief of prisons for the state of Tamil Nadu.
The inmates were being taught yoga. Prisoners grew organic produce and were gainfully employed in small manufacturing units and cottage industries run inside jails.
Raja saw Natraj as a mentor.
“Prison reform has always focused on how to reintegrate convicts into society once they’ve been released,” said Natraj. “But in order to ensure that they don’t revert to a life of crime, you need to change their attitudes when they are still in prison.”
Easing prisoners’ minds about their families and ensuring they have better social support and resources to be productive in jail is critical, he said, in the evolution and rehabilitation of the prisoner.
“Raja’s work addresses this and engages public interest in these issues.”
‘I’ve seen hardened criminals change their behaviour’
To access prisoners in jail, Raja had to register as a non-governmental organisation.
In 2011, he applied to study at Kanthari in Trivandrum, Kerala.
The school trains social entrepreneurs who wish to create change anywhere in the world.
Paul Kronenberg, Kanthari founder and codirector, remembers Raja as shy, humble and very dedicated.
“We realised that the impact of Raja’s work has a reach beyond the lives of the children and prisoners he helps. It extends to entire families, communities and society,” he said.
With Kanthari’s support, Raja travelled to Nepal and spent three months observing the work of an organisation that had similar goals – Prisoner Assistance Nepal.
On his return, Kanthari provided him with funding to establish GNE.
Raja then began to visit Pallayamkottai prison in Tirunelveli, which had several prisoners serving life sentences for killing their spouses.
He knew he had to win their trust.
On his first day, a prisoner cruelly asked him: “Are you sure you can help us when you look like you need help yourself?”
Over time, however, when Raja brought them news from their homes and families, traced missing children and provided financial and educational support to their sons and daughters who would have otherwise dropped out of school, they embraced him.
Today, financial assistance comes in fits and starts. Raja is helped by friends, donors and volunteers from all over the world.
“I’ve seen even hardened criminals change their behaviour after family visits,” said Raja. “I tell them that while I can’t promise to solve all their problems, I can promise to never let them face them alone.”