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Irish Woman, 80, Wins Compensation After Living in Modern Slavery as an 11-Year-Old

Why Global Citizens Should Care
There are 40 million people trapped in slavery across the world — more than at any other point in human history. Ending modern slavery and human trafficking are crucial to achieving UN Global Goal 8 to achieve decent work for everyone. You can take action here and join our movement to protect the world’s most vulnerable people.

Mary Cavner was 11 years old when her father died in 1951.

She was placed under the authority of a court in Cork, Ireland, which reportedly took her away from her siblings and sent her to one of the infamous Magdalene Laundries often run by Roman Catholic nuns.

The institutions were originally known as the Magdalene Asylums. Although first intended as a refuge, they became labour camps forcing vulnerable girls into unpaid work.

Cavner was stripped of her education and spent years malnourished as she served dinner to the ruling nuns, cleaning up after them and looking after the babies of the so-called “fallen women” taken in by the Good Shepherd Convent in Sunday's Well, County Cork, according to the BBC.

She said her day would end at 10 p.m. Cavner allegedly spent five years and 11 months trapped there without wages.

But Mary Cavner might have finally found some small justice. The mother of four is now 80 years old and has won £69,500 (€76,000) in compensation from the Irish government.

It’s been a long, hard battle. 

The fight in the courts has taken over eight years. She was denied remuneration at first, after the authorities claimed she was stationed at St Finbarr’s Industrial School instead, an institution not covered by the government’s compensation scheme. 

So Cavner joined other women in complaining to the Ombudsman — a free, independent body that investigates poorly addressed complaints or rights violations in Ireland — which eventually recommended that the public scheme should include them in a November 2017 report entitled "Opportunity Lost."

"They held me there and worked me until I was nearly 18," Cavner said. "We weren't allowed to talk or associate with anybody else.

"I had never mentioned what happened to me to my husband or my children, so it took all of my courage to admit what I had been through — and then they called me a liar," she added. 

"My experience in the laundry left me unable to communicate properly … I have had really low points as they have made me live this again and to be accused of not telling the truth made me feel rejected."

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The Irish government formally apologised to the victims of the Magdalene Laundries in 2013 with more than £27.32 million awarded in compensation to 770 women. 

It is thought, however, that 10,000 girls and women worked in the laundries in some capacity between 1922 and 1996.

“As a society, for many years, we failed you,” former Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny told Irish parliament in February 2013 as survivors listened in the gallery. “We forgot you. Or if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes. This is a national shame — for which I say again, we are deeply sorry, and I offer my full and heartfelt apologies.”

Cavner now lives in Hampshire, England. Her daughter, Mandie Stannard, has supported her throughout the long court dispute.

“My mum didn’t have a single day of education when she was in the laundry, but we were sent records that showed she had been at school every day for years,” Stannard told the Irish Times. “She worked from the moment she entered the laundry and didn’t stop for almost six years.”

“Throughout this process mum has been called a liar and the way these women have been treated is disgusting,” she added. “They took away my mum’s childhood and then they treated her like that. It’s scandalous.”

Sadly, stories of modern slavery like this are far from confined to history.

There are actually more slaves right alive right now than at any other point in human history. It’s thought that there are at least 40 million victims of modern slavery worldwide, of which 25 million are victims of forced labour.

In the UK it’s estimated there are around 10,000 to 13,000 victims of modern slavery, many of whom are embroiled in labour or sexual exploitation, or domestic servitude, just like Cavner was throughout most of the 1950s.

Other survivors have spoken of lifelong incarceration in the Magdalene Laundries, often starved, abused, or forced to eat off the floor. The final institution in Ireland closed in 1996, while mass graves have since been discovered containing the bodies of hundreds of babies and young women across the country.