NEPAL: Selling Daughters Into Bondage May End
DANG, Western Nepal -- With a young daughter in her lap, Sudhani Chaudhary, 30, carefully picks freshly harvested corn inside a small mud hut in Deukhuri Valley of Nepal`s south-western Dang district. One of her four young daughters, not quite aged 10, lives in a distant town working as a housemaid for a family, she says. "I am told she is attending school.``

Two other families-- her husband`s brothers` -- live in the same house. Five of their daughters too have been `sold` to households in far away cities like Surkhet, Pokhara and Kathmandu. Some work in restaurants and all are believed to be attending school..

"They have all become kamlaris," says Sudhani, referring to the practice of sending away young daughters. "Who likes to send their children away? But we don`t have enough to eat here. So it`s better for them (the girls) to go. At least they get food, and can even go to school," she says.

Selling young daughters as kamlaris (girl-child indentured labourers) is widespread in the Tharu community of Dang, Kailali, Kanchanpur, Banke and Bardiya districts of western Nepal. The reason most often cited is poverty, but it is also a tradition which has been continuing ever since the Tharus lost ownership of land to hill-settlers who have been descending on the fertile plains since the 1950s.

Loss of land changed the power dynamics of the region so drastically that it introduced a host of social ills among the Tharus -- the poorest of Nepal`s 26 million people. However, the Tharus form a significant minority and make up close to seven percent of a population known for its complex caste and ethnic diversity.

Tharus say they found themselves tilling what used to be their own land on a share-cropping basis that was so lopsided that they were shackled into being ‘kamaiyas` (bonded laborers). And even then, many had to entice the landlords, for share-cropping opportunities, by offering daughters as housemaids.

"The kamlari system grew out of this practice," says Dhaniram Chaudhary, the son of a former kamaiya who is now the vice president of a Tharu welfare organisation, the Society Welfare Action Nepal (SWAN), which works to eradicate the practice in lower Dang Valley. "It is servitude and exploitation. But it is not limited to poverty, since a few affluent Tharu families too send their girls as kamlaris."

There is no reliable data on how many young girls are caught up in the practice, but informal surveys by concerned organistions show that nearly 3,000 Tharu girls are sent yearly as kamlaris from Dang district alone. The figure could be as high as 20,000 to 25,000 from the five Tharu districts of western Nepal, according to Som Paneru, country director of Friends of Needy Children (FNC) -- a charity which works to rescue and rehabilitate kamlari girls.

The Internet-based charity, `Global Giving` estimates that some 40,000 girls may be working as bonded labourers in Nepal and that many of these may be as young as seven.

Tharu intellectuals in Dang say the kamlari system was institutionalised when middlemen entered the scene. Daughters who were previously being given to local landlords were soon being sent off to cities and towns as a favour to government and police officers. "As the practice gained ground, middlemen saw economic opportunities, so they institutionalised it by convincing poor Tharu parents to send away daughters to far away places for a mere Rs 4000 (about 54 US dollars)," says Shram Lal Chaudhary, a local community leader.

The kamlari system works like this: The girl is `sold` through middlemen to far-off homes and businesses after an initial Rs 4,000 - 6,000 (54-81 dollars) down payment is made to the parents at the time of the verbal contract during winter. The contract is generally for one year, but it continues perpetually as parents continue to receive annual payments through middlemen who, in most cases, are the only ones who know where the girl is. The girls get nothing except food and clothes, and in rare cases, some education.

One such girl is 11-year-old Srijana Chaudhary. She works as a helper at a small roadside tea stall in a town on Dang`s northern edges. Last winter, Srijana was bought for 54 dollars and taken to Ghorahi from her house in the lower Dang Valley. A shy girl with a sad and frightened demeanour, she attended a charity-run informal education class two hours every day until recently. "My name was cut off from the list," she says. Asked if she wanted to go back to school, she nodded vigorously.

Informal surveys have shown Ghorahi to have a growing kamlari problem. "Every other household here has a kamlari," says Sadhna DC, a local who works to rescue the children. "Government officials, businessmen, traders, almost all of them keep kamlaris. It is entrenched here."

Many parents say one of the reasons why the girls are sent away is because they are promised schooling by the buyer. But SWAN and FNC claim that nearly 90 percent of the girls are never sent to school. "It`s only false promises. We have found only a few who are treated well and actually sent to school," says Man Bahadur Chhettri of FNC.

SWAN and FNC have had tremendous success in eradicating the practice in Dang. In Gobardiya village, for example, many of the girls who were once kamlaris have been brought back and rehabilitated. Most of them are now attending local schools or vocational training classes. But this success has also invited controversy, ill-will and threats.

The Maoists, who initially supported the kamlari eradication measures, got suspicious of the organisational activities of FNC and SWAN and forced them to withdraw their programme last year. The rebels only relented five months later after Tharu families pressured the local Maoist leadership to allow the programme to continue.

And on Sep. 3, an association of local hoteliers and restaurateurs in Lamahi called a press conference to announce a ban on FNC and SWAN members from eating in their hotels because of "unfounded allegations that we exploit the children." The owners instead argued they were providing employment to girls.

"Much as we like to see the practice eradicated, there is still some resistance," concedes Dhaniram of SWAN. "But at least the girls and families themselves have been made aware of the problem. We see hope."

Part of the optimism stems from a Supreme Court decision on Sep. 9 which banned the kamlari system. The court also ordered the Nepal government to set up a kamlari rehabilitation fund for the welfare of the girls and their families. The order resulted from a writ petition filed two years ago by FNC.

Suman Pradhan, IPS

Published: 18.09.2006
Published by: Magne Ove Varsi