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Former Kamlari slave girls pave the way for change in Nepal

Human Rights
Nepalese girl washing utensils

A young girl washes utensils in Nepal. Nearly half of all children between the ages of 5 and14 are in child labour Jim Holmes for AusAID under a Creative Commons Licence

Recent progress in Nepal has been overshadowed by the devastating April 2015 earthquake. However, one of the success stories to emerge in the last decade is that of the Kamlari slave girls. From prisoners of forced labour to leading advocates for girls’ rights, they are building a firm foundation for class and gender equality.

Nepal looms large in the Western imagination. A diamond of the Orient, it has captivated adventure-seekers, traders and backpackers for centuries. Yet beyond the snowcapped peaks of Mount Everest and the old-world villages that surround Kathmandu lies a darker picture of poverty, displacement and neglect.

Nepal is ranked 157th out of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index. The average annual salary is less than $210; child-marriage rates are at 40 per cent, only 57 per cent of the population are literate, and nearly half of all children between the ages of 5 and14 are in child labour. This last issue often encompasses the hidden problem of trafficking.

One of the worst forms of domestic servitude in Nepal is the tradition of Kamlari. The story began in the mid-20th century. The Tharu are an indigenous community that lives in the secluded malaria-stricken lowlands of western Nepal. Being naturally immune to the mosquito-borne virus has meant that they maintained an identity and way of life that remained untouched over centuries. But during the 1950s Nepal opened up to enterprise; the availability of the DDT insecticide meant swamps could be treated for mosquitoes, and wealthy magnates quickly snapped up land and properties. The Tharu suddenly found their villages overtaken by venture capitalists who, over the next decade, forcibly ejected them from their homeland or indentured them into a form of bonded labour known as Kamaiya. Despite being illegal, the practice thrived, and the Tharu found themselves pushed into poverty and starvation. As a last resort, fathers were compelled to sell their daughters to work in the big cities in exchange for an annual sum of money. These became the Kamlari slave girls (Kamlari translates as ‘slaves’).

Despite appearing legal, Kamaiya is a one of the most unethical kinds of forced labour. At the harvest festival of Maghe held each January in Tharu villages, indigenous girls as young as five are sold by their families for as little as $50 per year to rich landowners. They are then trafficked to wealthy households to work as domestics. While in theory Kamlari girls are meant to have bed, board and education, in reality they become modern-day slaves. Often subject to abuse, violence, rape and imprisonment, they also contend with the petty details of servitude such as food rationing, surveillance, sleep deprivation and social isolation.

Kamlari girls are also ‘off-grid’, meaning they often have no formal contract, or legal protection. While there is often a promise of annual payments, 16 per cent of families don’t receive any salary at all. More alarmingly, many girls have vanished, or been found dead.

Yet there is good news, thanks in no small part to former Kamlari girls who have the strength and courage to speak out against the practice. In 2013, the Kamlari bonded labour system was abolished. Sixteen years ago there were over 20,000 girls still trapped; today there are perhaps as few as 500.

However, freedom has to be nourished daily. Kamlari girls will often be traumatized by their experiences, so NGOs have ralled and spoken out for those who have been systematically silenced.

Kamlari girls are not only victims – they are survivors, who are now being given the opportunity to thrive. With the power of international charities like the Nepal Youth Foundation, and organizations like the International Labour Organization, girls have opportunities to go to school and gain an education. Some will be offered micro-income jobs or small loans to start businesses. Those recently rescued can find shelters and children’s homes where they can begin rebuilding their life.

Yet overall, it is the former Kamlari girls themselves who have paved the way. Whether it is knocking on doors, lobbying government officials, staging rallies, or going on marches, they have carried the banner for those still trapped in the system, and spoken on their behalf. The abolition of Kamaiya, as well as the Nepalese government’s promise to invest in rehabilitative services, is in no small part down to them. This is a success for the girls, but also a success for Nepal, which has often neglected rural communities and girls’ rights. 

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