No justice for Nepal’s slave girls

  • VULNERABLE: Nepalese indentured ‘kamlari’ girl Jayarani Tharu, left, and formerly indentured and now activist Manjita Chaudhary, after the rescue of Tharu from her workplace by police and activists in Katmandu. (AFP)

 

From Arab News, 25/1/14

Nine-year-old Manjita Chaudhary had never spent a night away from her
parents when her father sold her to a Nepalese policeman for $25.

She left her family in western Nepal and traveled some 200 kms to her employer’s home near the Indian border.

Her harsh new life began at 4 a.m., the start of a daily routine in
which she would clean her employer’s house, wash dishes, cook and then
go to his relatives’ homes to do the same, before falling asleep just
shy of midnight.

“I couldn’t cope with the work, so my employer’s wife would beat me with
pots and pans, and threatened to sell me to another man,” Chaudhary,
now 22, told AFP.

“I was so scared, I couldn’t even cry in front of them, I would just cry quietly in the bathroom,” she said.

When she met her father a year later, she begged to return home, but her
father, a bonded laborer, said they couldn’t afford to raise her or her
younger sister, whom they had also sold into domestic slavery.

Nepal’s indentured “kamlari” girls — some as young as six — are among
the Himayalan nation’s most vulnerable citizens, subject to beatings and
sexual violence while being kept as virtual prisoners by their
employers.

Every January, when Nepal’s Tharu community celebrates the Maghi
festival, marking the end of winter, destitute Tharu families also sign
contracts worth as little as 2,500 rupees ($25) a year, leasing their
daughters to work in strangers’ homes.

The annual tradition is unusual even in a region where illegal, bonded
slavery and child labor are rife and where it is common to see children
working in tea-shops, homes and even on construction sites.

A century ago the Tharu, said to be descendants of the Buddha, owned
their farms and lived in relative isolation in the malaria-infested
Terai plains, enjoying a natural resistance to the disease that the
higher castes lacked.

But when malaria was eradicated from the fertile region in 1960, the
Tharu were displaced by higher-caste farmers, becoming indebted serfs in
their own land.

Many, like Chaudhary’s impoverished parents, resorted to selling their
daughters into domestic slavery, establishing the kamlari tradition,
which, although outlawed in 2006, persists across the country.

Chaudhary worked for three years as a kamlari, enduring violence and
sexual harassment, before activists from the US-based Nepal Youth
Foundation approached her father and offered to support and educate his
daughters if he ended their contracts.

At the age of 12, Chaudhary learnt to read and write. Today, the
business undergraduate cuts a confident figure, fashionably dressed in a
trench coat and conversant in three languages.

But the childhood scars remain, compelling her to volunteer as an advocate for kamlari rights.

“I was robbed of my childhood. It was a horrible time and I will do
whatever I can to end this practice, to free other girls,” she said.

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