RAJAPALAYAM, INDIA —
Before the break of dawn, Muthulakshmi Mariappan slips out of her home and starts running.
In the stillness of the morning, she gasps for breath but eggs herself on to run faster, take longer strides and ignore the thorns piercing her bare feet.
For the 20-year-old spinning mill worker, running fast is a prerequisite to becoming a policewoman - and becoming a policewoman would be her dream come true.
The job would let her break free from a cycle of low-paid drudgery at her spinning mill in Rajapalayam, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and give her new-found stature and the chance to escape a traditional female destiny.
"Clearing the exams and being accepted for police academy training will give me a respectable job and better future," Mariappan said. "My elder sisters worked in the mills and then got married, just like almost every other girl from this area. I want to do something more than just being a mill girl."
Mariappan is one of the estimated 400,000 workers employed in the 1,600 mills in Tamil Nadu that turn cotton into yarn, fabric and clothes.
Working in India's $40 billion-a-year textile and garment industry for the last four years, she earns 270 Indian rupees($4.24) a day.
"Many, many workers do this job only because they don't have other options in this region," said Joseph Raj of the non-profit Trust for Education and Social Transformation.
"Now that is changing. Young workers are looking for ways to come out of the factories. We are drawing up an annual schedule of various competitive exams they can take to get a government job."
Looms to Books
Poomalai Poomari, 22, started studying for the police exam in January. Every day, after long hours at the looms weaving, she would head home, climb onto the kitchen ledge to bring down her books from a cluttered loft and get straight to work.
"Whenever I was not working at the looms, I would study," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "It was not easy because the books, the syllabus, the questions had all changed from the time I went to school. It was difficult to restart."
For three months, Poomari, Mariappan and 11 other women workers - all school dropouts - studied science, maths and psychology, as well as working on their general knowledge.
Using study material from Raj's organization, the girls crammed for a written exam - the first stepping stone to the police department.
"When I first thought about applying for the exam, my friends at the mill dismissed the idea, saying I was only going to fail," Mariappan said. "After we passed the exam, others think it is doable and want to try. Now, they want my notes."
Six of them, including Poomari and Mariappan, cleared the exam in May.
Poomari's mother Maragatham felt relief and happiness.
"I remember her crying bitterly when she had to stop her education and work full time at the looms. I felt bad, but there was no choice then. Now there is some hope that she will go out and do something better."
But there was no time to celebrate, because the next hurdle was the physical exam - and that was the bigger challenge.
Barefoot Shot Put
Trading her traditional salwar kameez for track pants and a T-shirt, Mariappan prefers to train barefoot.
She runs on a 400-meter track, marked out by her brother in an unused field by the railway lines near her home in N Puthur village.
Next she tries her hand at shot put, then long jump.
Years of standing in a mill doing shifts that last up to 10 hours have taken a toll; Mariappan's knees have given way and she is struggling with the run-up to her long jump.
"In my old school, the teachers have agreed to let me practice," she said, massaging her knee. "But my knees are hurting bad(ly). My take-off is not great and I am not clearing the mandated distance. My legs ache when I come back from the mill. Now, the strain is even more."
Many girls employed by the industry are overworked, underweight, anaemic and unfit, doctors and campaigners say.
Muthukutty Mariappan is acutely aware of the fact that her daughter is pushing her limits and low on stamina.
"I am giving her some almonds, milk, more vegetables and fruits to help build her stamina," she said. "Initially we were hesitant but then as a family we decided to support her. We will do what we can to help her."
In Ayanavaram village, Maragatham spends on pomegranates for Poomari and coaxes her to drink milk.
Both girls have taken a few days off work to focus on their fitness ahead of the physical tests, scheduled for August.
It means a loss of salary for both households, but the families are counting on the girls to clear the exams and get the coveted job, even dismissing any thought of getting them married as is the norm in the villages.
"That uniform will bring us some respect," said Poomari, who was confident of making the grade. "Otherwise we are abused, exploited and brushed aside as mill girls. If we become policewomen, people will fear us."
($1 = 63.6300 Indian rupees)