When a Nepali woman named Urmila Chaudhary was 6 years old, she was bonded as a kamlari—an indentured laborer—to a family in Kathmandu, far from her home district of Dang. Though she was liberated in 2008, she remembers the experience of serving as a bonded laborer: “When we stay as kamlari,” she said recently over the phone from Kathmandu, “we feel we are not human, we are like animal.” She spoke of not being allowed outside, of not being given treatment when sick, and being fed “rotten food.”
Chaudhary is now in her early 20s, and hasn’t been a kamlari for years, but is recovering from injuries sustained from a recent beating at the hands of the police. Recently, Chaudhary traveled to Nepal’s capital as part of a group of some 65 girls, all former kamlaris, to seek justice from their government. In March of this year, a young kamlari girl named Srijana Chaudhary (no relation to Urmila) had been found dead in a home near Kathmandu, where she was serving as a bonded laborer. She had burned to death. The girls wanted a proper investigation into Srijana’s death, and also wanted the government to officially outlaw the kamlari practice. Although the system violates multiple laws in Nepal, it’s still widespread, even though there is a growing sense of shame surrounding it.
According to Som Paneru, the president of the Nepal Youth Foundation, the girls spent days staging a sit-in in front of the Singha Durbar, the country’s main government building, and after being ignored, they tried to enter the palace. But as they did so the police responded with force, beating them “by stick, by boot, by hand,” Chaudhary says, and sending some of them to the hospital. After the beating, she says, “Some girls have head problems, some girls have stomach problems.” After spending time in the hospital, Chaudhary is now recovering, but said recently that she “can’t walk alone” and needs help while her injuries heal. (This video, published on YouTube on June 2, 2013, shows an altercation between police and the protesting girls, although it’s unclear if it is the same confrontation as the one involving Chaudhary.) A police officer told local media that “we were compelled to use force after the protestors tried to cross the restricted area.”
The protests in Nepal’s capital were the culmination of a broader movement for justice for the kamlaris, and one of the movement’s key players is the Nepal Youth Foundation, which has a program focused on liberating kamlaris. Paneru, their president, estimates that they have freed about 12,500 girls, but believes there may be as many as 500 still trapped in this form of slavery. When working to liberate a girl, they offer either a goat or a piglet—a form of capital—as an economic incentive to the girl’s biological family to take back the daughter they have sent into servitude. It’s a practice born out of poverty and is exclusive to an ethnic group called the Tharus, who come from five different districts in southwestern Nepal, part of a flat, tropical region of the country called the Terai bordering India. Poor families who feel they cannot afford to raise a daughter will bond her to another family, which sometimes pays for the girl outright or provides food and shelter in exchange for the girl’s labor. While each bonding agreement is supposed to last for only one year before being renegotiated, in reality the arrangements can continue indefinitely.
It is, not surprisingly, a system in which the girls are very prone to abuse. Manjushree Thapa, a Nepali writer living in Canada, has spent time investigating the kamlari system for a film called Girl Rising, for which she wrote the story of a former kamlari named Suma Tharu. “Each deal is different,” says Thapa. “A few of the girls I spoke to, their parents didn’t get anything; it was just in return for shelter and food and clothing for the girls. Some parents do get money, it’s not very much money, but it depends. One of the girls actually said to me, when the parents get money, there’s a higher risk of abuse, because the master”—the girl’s new owner—“feels a real sense of ownership over them. It is sort of experienced as slavery by a lot of these girls.”
Despite the police violence in Kathmandu, this story has a happy ending: after negotiations, the government agreed last week to a 10-point deal with the kamlari delegation, agreeing to give at least 500,000 Nepali rupees (more than $5,000) to the biological family of the girl in Kathmandu who died in March—as well as promising to declare that all kamlaris are freed, issuing identity cards to the girls, and paying back the medical expenses for the injured girls. They are supposed to accomplish all this within a month. “This is a very good achievement for the moment,” say Paneru, “but we have to see how it is implemented—how serious the government implements the commitment.” He added that they can “make them comply” if the government doesn’t follow through, with tactics like strikes. (A government representative was not immediately available for comment.)
Thapa, the writer, agrees that it takes a lot to get the government to listen, and notes that the deal with the kamlaris was the culmination of a long movement. “It’s a government that if you’re willing to risk your safety and all of that will finally talk to you,” she says, adding that “the kamlaris are not going to give up, so that part I feel optimistic about, and … they’ll be following it really closely, so they’re going to hold the government to account.”