The day of the Maghe Sankranti festival this year, January 15, 2014, was a very special one for the daughters of the Tharu community of Western Nepal. Unlike past festivals, they didn’t have to worry that their parents would sell them off as “Kamlari,’ or indentured servants.
“Kamlari Freedom Day” — celebrated with a march, and many speeches by government “thulo manchhes” (big shots) — was also special for me. It was a once-in-a-lifetime-I-never-thought-I’d-see-the-day event!
NYF ignited a movement Since 2000, NYF has been working to eradicate this pernicious custom by liberating over 12,000 girls from bondage and bringing them home to live with their families, providing their parents with a piglet or a goat to make up for the girls’ wages, placing the liberated girls in school, and carrying out an energetic awareness campaign to turn the Tharu mothers and fathers against the practice. This, along with lawsuits against employers who persisted in enslaving their little girl servants and heavy lobbying with the government, has brought freedom not only to the present generation of child servants, but to their daughters and their daughters’ daughters as well.
As I sat on the stage for what seemed hours, I harkened back to the time of my first visit to Dang thirteen years ago, almost to the day. That time, the context was entirely different. I thought of the little orphan girl I saw that day sobbing relentlessly by her uncle’s side, begging not to be sent back to work for her callous employer — while her uncle told us, without shame, that he had sold her and her sister to pay for the cost of his son’s wedding.
Freedom for future generations I was similarly clueless about what was being said by the many speakers on Kamlari Freedom Day, but I knew with certainty that that little girl did not spend the rest of her childhood as a kitchen slave, and that this was true of other Tharu girls of her generation and generations to come. The proof was before my eyes, as I looked down at a sea of faces of freed, assertive former Kamlari, including 30 who had just passed their college entrance examinations and were headed for higher education.
When it came my turn to speak, I wish I could have just shouted the Tharu equivalent of “You go girls!”
Thank you everyone, for supporting NYF through the years and helping to make this amazing new freedom possible.
Olga Murray Founder & Honorary President
Renu was a fifth grader in her local village school when her dad had a bad accident and could no longer support the family. Desperate, he "sold" Renu into a contract of indentured servitude and sent the 12-year old to work as a Kamlari — essentially, a household slave — for a family in a city far from her home.
While her "employer" promised to send Renu to school, he gave her so much work that she was unable to attend the local elementary school. Instead, she studied on her own late at night after a grueling day of sweeping, mopping and fetching fodder for the family’s animals.
“As a Kamlari, I was constantly working,” Renu said. “I started at 3 a.m. and often didn’t finish until midnight. It took everything to stay up to study.”
As part of its campaign to end the practice of Kamlari, Nepal Youth Foundation (NYF) rescued Renu in 2000 after five years as an indentured servant. She was 17 years old.
Smart and hardworking, Renu received a scholarship and finished her studies, passing the difficult School Leaving Certificate exam, a test required of all Nepalis to complete high school. She joined NYF’s Vocational Education and Counseling Center program (VECC) and completed the 18-month Auxiliary Nurse Midwife training program.
She now earns 15,000 rupees ($150) a month — good money in this impoverished country — delivering babies at a small clinic in Western Nepal.
Renu is also continuing her work towards a bachelor’s degree — again, working late into the night studying.
“This is different,” she said. “I don’t mind studying now. I am lucky to have this opportunity. “
Since 2000, NYF has rescued nearly 13,000 girls from the Kamlari system, and was instrumental in causing the government of Nepal in 2013 to officially ban Kamlari once and for all. Today, NYF focuses on providing former Kamlaris with the education, job skills, emotional counseling, and business opportunities they need to ensure a brighter future.
”I am happy that the next generation of girls will never have to go through what I have been through,” Renu said.
In a concerted push to rescue the last 376 girls still held as slaves in the homes of wealthy and powerful Nepali families, NYF this month launched an intensive effort to find and free them.
NYF rescued two girls in December– Jayarani and Jugri – who were working in the homes of wealthy businessmen in Kathmandu. Jayarani was seven when her parents sold her as a Kamlari. She remained for nine years. Despite promises made by her employers, she never went to school nor had they paid her family the meager amount of money they promised for her work. Jugri was forced to work as a Kamlari to reimburse a family for paying for a needed ear operation. She worked for a year to pay off her debt, and still worried that she still owed the family.
The girls are now safely sheltered and are receiving counseling before returning to their families. NYF will provide the girls with an education, skills training and counseling to help them transition to freedom. Despite the recent abolition of the Kamlari system, an estimated 376 girls are still enslaved according to a recent survey, and 89 of them are in Kathmandu. NYF has freed more than 12,000 girls since it began its movement in 1990.
As the freed Kamlaris finish school or vocational training, an increasing number of the girls are joining cooperatives to start their own businesses.
Last year, 65 members of different cooperatives obtained low-interest loans from a fund of $19,254 provided by Nepal Youth Foundation to start businesses in poultry, fishing, retail, carpentry, auto repair and vegetable farming.
We also registered 15 new cooperatives last year and now operate 32 different cooperative ventures.
Since 2000, we have freed more than 12,000 girls from indentured servitude, and we now must work to empower them through vocational training, leadership development and economic opportunities. The cooperatives are a good way to build community and provide the financial resources the girls need to become independent.
A former Kamlari, Bandhiya trained as a seamstress and borrowed money from a cooperative to start her own tailoring business. She has hired five girls and now runs a profitable business.
Thank you for your generosity. Your support has helped young women like Bandhiya make the transition from a household servant to a successful business owner. Namaste.
As NYF's Indentured Daughters Program matures, many of the young women rescued over the past two decades are now leaders of the Freed Kamlari Development Forum (FKDF). These women understand, as no one else can, the reasons for abolishing child slavery in Nepal.
Hundreds of these women took to the streets last March and demanded that the Nepal government abolish the practice of indentured servitude and investigate the suspicious disappearance of 40 Kamlari girls. The government listened, and in July, officials banned the practice. Government officials also promised to investigate the suspicious disappearance of Kamlari girls. FKDF members are monitoring the government’s actions to make certain they are keeping their promise.
Nevertheless, while it is illegal, the current reality is that destitute parents continue to sell their children into indentured servitude and about 500 Kamlari are still held captive by the most powerful people in the country – top police officers, government officials, the rich, politicians and those protected by politicians. NYF fears these powerful people will kill the girls or force them to commit suicide to keep their own abusive behavior from becoming public.
Your help as desperately needed now as ever before to keep innocent children safe from the dangers of being sold to foreign brokers who take the children far from their villages. Thank you again for your support of the Nepal Youth Foundation. Namaste!
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