Nepal’s Last Remaining Slave Girls Wait for Their Freedom

Despite the best efforts of NGOs, around 500 slave girls remain in Nepal — and next month a concerted effort is being made to trace and rescue them

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Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters

A girl throws away broken bricks while unloading bricks at a factory in Lalitpur, Nepal, on Dec. 19, 2012

Dil Kumari was 9 years old when her parents sold her into servitude. Although she felt angry, it wasn’t much of a surprise. “Even children aged 7 or 8 used to be sold so it was normal,” the 20-year-old tells TIME.

For decades, the girls of Nepal’s impoverished Tharu community were victims of this now outlawed practice. Every January, the harvest festival, or Maghi, marked the time when trading in Tharu girls took place. Hardly any are sold now, and thousands of kamlari, as they’re known, have been rescued from servitude, but around 500 remain in slavelike conditions. At next month’s Maghi, a concerted effort will be made to find them.

Rescued kamlari themselves are at the forefront of this push. Through their contacts, they are learning where the slaves are being kept and at Maghi plan to approach identified households in a group, for security. They will tell the owners that the practice has now been outlawed and that the kamlari must be freed. If there is resistance, they will contact the authorities.

Boasting eight of the 10 highest mountains in the world, Nepal is renowned as a snowcapped realm of Sherpas and soaring adventure. Less well known are the country’s vast western lowlands where the Tharu live. Over the centuries, as the retreat of malarial swamps brought migrants looking for fresh pastures, the Tharu were driven from the land and became a subservient caste. But despite the official banning of slavery at the turn of the century, “when it came to implementation this was only for adults, and they forgot about the children,” says Som Paneru, president of the California-based NGO Nepal Youth Foundation.

And so the practice of Tharu families selling their daughters continued into the new millennium. Desperate parents leading hardscrabble existences deluded themselves with the fantasy that, somehow, their daughters were going to enjoy more comfortable lives as kamlari while earning a little money for the family.

Because of this, girls as young as 6 would be offered during the Maghi Festival to rich landowners from the neighborhood or affluent families in the city. In the past, “we would go to these villages at [Maghi], and you could see dozens of slick cars from Kathmandu or Pokhara lined up with people looking for girls to buy,” says Paneru. “Every single house had sold their daughters.”

Parents were typically paid $20 to $60 dollars for each year of their daughter’s service, with the agreements renewed or not at each Maghi. The employers were supposed to educate and adequately feed, clothe and house the girls, and use them only for simple household tasks; in practice, the girls were often forced to provide backbreaking labor, were poorly fed and forced to sleep in barns or on floors. Annual terms of service were often not renegotiated, with girls kept in their places of work and prevented from returning home at Maghi. In effect, they became slaves until they were found by NGOs or reached the age of maturity.

Kumari ran away from her first “owner” after three years of torment, only to be sold again a few months later. “I would wake at 4 in the morning and work until midnight,” she says. “I had to perform all the household chores and only be fed very bad food.” The kamlari were also vulnerable to sexual, mental and physical abuse. “The landlord used to send me to the shop to buy wine late at night,” she adds. “I had to massage his body with oil.”

Promises of education were almost never kept. Kumari would often be forced to carry the heavy schoolbags of her employer’s children to the school bus, and then return home to scrub the floors. Many young kamlari go to desperate lengths to better themselves. “The children of the landlord were around the same age and used to go to the boarding school,” says Asmita Chaudhary, 21, another kamlari from Bardiya, western Nepal, who was sold when she was a comparatively late 14 years old. “I used to steal their old homework and erase the pencil writing and try to redo it myself.”

Release from servitude has brought challenges to many kamlari. Girls have returned home from the city having forgotten their mother tongues (there are around 120 languages and dialects spoken in Nepal). Unsuited to long hours in the fields, they have ended up estranged from their families. Some former kamlari have joined forces with NGOs to set up special accelerated-learning schools and cooperatives to give themselves a skill, often in unusual trades for Nepali women, such as electrical work, carpentry or plumbing. Some rescued girls are trained in street theater and present shortwave-radio broadcasts about their experiences. “Tharu farmers hear these on cheap radios in their fields and weep to think of the suffering of their own daughters,” explains Paneru.

The Nepal Youth Foundation set about attempting to rid Nepal of this scourge back in January 2000. (Both Kumari and Chaudhary were rescued in 2009.) The NGO offered to pay for the cost of educating the girls, and to compensate families for the loss of earnings their daughters would bring in as kamlari, they gave out piglets. (Cash compensation, it was feared, would be squandered on drink by the girls’ fathers.) After years of campaigning, the government has now agreed to cover these costs.

Around 12,500 kamlari have been rescued since the Nepal Youth Foundation began its campaign, but the search continues for the remaining few hundred. Enforcement of the law against keeping kamlari is lax, hampered by the fact that the institution was accepted for so many years. “These girls are losing their childhoods because of the failure of law enforcement by the state,” says Paneru, who says girls have been rescued from police officers and even the home of a senior official at the Supreme Court.

The last remaining kamlari, he says, “are the ones who are most difficult to find as they are employed by powerful people.” But the former kamlari who will come knocking this Maghi have history on their side — and that is powerful too.