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Nepal's slave girls

Can the young girls forced to work in middle class homes across the country break the bonds of slavery?

Last updated: 28 Sep 2013 14:34
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Slavery is banned in Nepal. But hidden behind the walls of city homes, some still keep young girls as slaves called kamlaris.

The girls are from the Tharu community, an indigenous group that was stripped of its land and forced into bonded labour after Nepal's first social order was introduced 160 years ago. Tharus farm the land of their landlord and, in return, give back half of what they produce. Often, they trade away their daughters as well.

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In June 2013, kamlaris from all over the country protested in a bid to bring an end to slavery once and for all. They want to be free from servitude and have their basic rights guaranteed. The demonstrations were triggered by the mysterious death of Srijana, a 12-year-old kamlari girl who burnt to death in her owner's house. The police alleged it was suicide but the kamlaris were not convinced.

The police retaliated against the demonstrators with violence. Political organisations and rights groups were conspicuously absent from their demonstrations. 

101 East travels to western Nepal, home of the Tharus, where Srijana's mother, Draupati Chaudhary, is still in shock. Draupati had handed over her daughter in exchange for the right to till the land and the promise that Srijana would receive an education. Two years on, Srijana was dead.

In a nearby village, another kamlari, Sharda Chaudhary, talks about how she was abused. She slept in the bathroom and was raped by the landlord's son. When she dared to complain, she was beaten up. Sharda worked for only three months. When she was sent back, her mother did not believe that she would survive.

While the government declared the practice illegal more than 10 years ago, many kamlaris continue to live lives of hardship and suffering. In the last five years, five kamlaris have died under mysterious circumstances while 27 are missing from the homes they worked in.

We speak to the official spokesperson of the ministry for women and children and ask what the government is doing regarding these grave abuses.

We also meet some who are working to change the fate of kamlari girls. Man Bahadur Chettri and his organisation, Indentured Daughter's Programme, have rescued more than 12,000 kamlaris. For many of the girls, trauma and emotional baggage makes it hard for them to return home and reintegrate into society, so they end up at a hostel. Here, they receive education, food and shelter until they are able to support themselves.

Other former kamlaris have joined forces with NGOs to create awareness among parents who might otherwise send their daughters away. They also take on the more active role of rescuers, in a bid to end the kamlari system by freeing one girl at a time.

During our filming, we see young girls working behind the high walls of many city homes and ask one man why he continues to keep a kamlari. He tells us that he provides her with education, food and a good place to stay, treating her like his own daughter.

We follow a mother on her journey to free her daughter. In the process, we realise that there are many grey areas when it comes to kamlaris and that what is good for most, is not necessarily good for all.

Can Nepal's slave girls be free? Share your thoughts with us @AJ101East  #NepalSlavery

Filmmaker's view: Born to Work

By Subina Shrestha

Almost every home in Tharu villages gave away a daughter to serve as a kamlari [Bishnu Kalpit]

A few years ago, I was having lunch with a friend in my home city of Kathmandu in Nepal. Between mouthfuls he suddenly said: "I know my cousins occasionally rape Tharu girls." I remember not being sure whether to swallow my food or to throw up.

My friend wanted to get the information off his chest, but I also knew that he would never confront his cousins - let alone work on prosecuting them.
 
And that is just the problem with much of the South Asian middle class. We build glass walls around ourselves and hope that the other half - who live in poverty and exploitation every day - will just sort themselves out.
 
Tharus are just one of the indigenous groups that are exploited regularly. Many become bonded labourers, known as kamlaris. When they demonstrated in Kathmandu last June, it was not surprising that most activists or political groups ignored them. They were beaten brutally by the police. But these girls persisted until the government was forced to listen to them.
 
The kamlaris were demanding that the government look into the death of a 12-year-old kamlari girl who was burnt alive in her owner’s home. The police said it was suicide but many felt the facts did not add up. And even if it was suicide, no one asked why a 12-year-old would choose to pour kerosene over herself and light it in flames rather than carry on living; no one reflected on how desperate she must have been.
 
The isolation of these kamlaris who live and work as maids in Nepalese homes intrigued me, and their determination fascinated me. There was a desperation in that protest, as the girls were beaten back by the police, that is rarely seen in Kathmandu’s constant round of petty rallies and fake outrage. I felt that I had to find out more.

The first task was to find a kamlari working in Kathmandu. We knew hundreds were hidden away behind the high walls of middle class homes across the city but we found that no one wanted to talk about them. I called a journalist from western Nepal, where most of the kamlaris hail from. He told me: "Everyone in power has a kamlari." When I asked him for names, he said: "I am not going to name names. Frankly, I have political ambitions."

Many former kamlaris have dedicated their lives to ending bonded labour and freeing girls still trapped in the system [Bishnu Kalpit]

We decided to look for the girls ourselves. Armed with hidden cameras, our team set out - and after just a day of searching, we found eight kamlaris. One was even locked inside the house of a local police officer.
 
Fortunately, there are NGOs in Nepal working to free the kamlaris and we did not need to knock on every door. Former kamlaris have also organised themselves, and have a common voice.
 
Talking to the kamlaris, I heard plenty of horror stories of abuse, violence and rape. But more common were the stories of petty behaviour aimed at humiliating them.

One young girl told me that she had to feed her owner’s dog cornflakes in the morning while she herself only got stale food. Another talked of being fed rotten rice. The owners could have afforded to provide better food but it was a way of keeping the kamlaris in their place. It was inconceivable that these girls could be seen as an equal in any way. For the owners, the girls were born to be used and abused.
 
Hearing their stories, it struck me once again how ugly human cruelty can be. What makes people exploit young children? And how is exploitation so easily accepted – especially by the educated middle class?
 
The families of the young kamlaris were equally culpable. Man Bahadur Chhetri, a man who has dedicated almost a decade to helping kamlaris, told me how the parents of these girls do not value their daughters. Like the rest of Nepal where people prefer sons to daughters, Srijana’s parents had seven girls and then a son. They would never have sent their son to work at someone else’s house. But Srijana was dispensable. When Chhetri’s NGO started working with Tharu families, they could convince parents to keep their daughters at home with the reward of a pig or goat.

Another inspiring NGO worker we met is Krishna Chaudhary, a man who was almost killed during Nepal’s decade-long insurgency trying to save the lives of kamlaris. He showed me a large gash on his leg from when the then Maoist rebels beat him up. He refused to let the rebels take the girls to join the war. Meeting people like Krishna and Man Bahadur Chhetri can restore one’s faith in humanity.
 
But even after years of activism, exploitation of the Tharus still persists. The kamlari system has been outlawed but we went to some villages and found that Tharu tenant farmers still have to do extra work in the homes of their landlords in exchange for the right to till land. Wives of farmers go to the landlord’s house and complete all the domestic work for free. The only difference was that it was not little girls who worked there and the farmer’s wives could return home to their children.
 
But we found that there are exceptions and not all kamlaris are abused. One girl who was rescued by a local NGO did not want to return home to her family. It appeared that the owner of the house where she worked in Kathmandu treated her well, sending her to a private school along with his own daughter, something her own family could never afford.
 
At the end of filming, it was the kamlaris themselves that left me most inspired. They are some of the bravest girls I have ever met. Rising from childhoods of neglect and abuse, many have forgiven their landlords and are now dedicated to bringing about change.

Perhaps if middle class Nepalis would apply more introspection in their lives, they would realise that these girls are not their equal. Many rise far above them.

101 East  airs each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2230; Friday: 0930; Saturday: 0330; Sunday: 1630.  

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Al Jazeera
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