Kalpana Khanal, GPJ Nepal
 

Bonded Laborers in Nepal Hope Actions of Government and NGOs Will Truly Free Them

 

Article Highlights

Nepal

Young girls from poor families in remote regions of Nepal are often forced into indentured labor. Since 1996, some 12,000 such girls, called kamlaris, have been rescued from servitude.

DANG, NEPAL – Gangu Chaudhary admits to selling his 12-year-old daughter into indentured labor more than three years ago. But he never imagined she would die at the hands of her employer.

“Her employers burned her to death with kerosene flames,” he alleges. “But the police tampered with the postmortem report to show it as a case of accident.”

When Srijana Chaudhary died on March 27, 2013, she was working as a “kamlari,” a Nepali term for a female domestic worker, in a house in Lalitpur, a city in Kathmandu Valley.

Gangu Chaudhary says his daughter was murdered. But other reports suggest her death was an accident or even a suicide.

Gangu Chaudhary is still seeking justice for his daughter. He believes she was murdered and alleges that corrupt police covered up the crime.

“Her employer bribed the police in front of my eyes and forced me to put my signature on the report,” he says, in tears. “They didn’t even let me see my daughter’s dead body.”

Police deny his allegations. While Gangu Chaudhary says the postmortem report indicated his daughter’s death was an accident, a police spokesperson says Srijana’s death was a suicide.

The police investigation concluded Srijana died from self-immolation, says Pawan Kumar Giri, spokesperson of the Metropolitan Police Range in Lalitpur, a district neighboring Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.

The postmortem report confirms this determination, he says. The police obtained statements from neighbors who saw Srijana writhing in pain on the terrace of the house, her body on fire. At least five other kamlaris have committed suicide in recent years, according to a local NGO report.

A year and a half after the investigation ended, Gangu Chaudhary remains convinced his daughter did not kill herself.

“I cannot believe that my daughter committed suicide,” he says. “If she did commit suicide, then why did she do it? What forced her to take such action?”

Compelled by poverty, many parents in rural Nepal send their daughters to work in wealthier households, where many face inhumane working conditions, exploitation and abuse. Some employers say they are helping kamlaris by providing them with food and clothing in exchange for their labor.

In 2013 the government formally abolished the practice of kamlari, but it has yet to provide all the assistance it promised to kamlari organizations.

In addition to championing the rights of kamlaris, nongovernmental organizations rescue these workers by helping them learn to earn a livelihood in humane circumstances.

Most kamlaris are from the Tharu community in the rural Mid-Western and Far-Western regions of Nepal, says Shanta Chaudhary, a former kamlari and a former member of the Constituent Assembly of Nepal. The Tharu community is marginalized, lacking access to education, skills development and job opportunities.

Kamlaris receive minimal remuneration – some are paid while others work in exchange for education, clothes and food, she says.

The Nepalese government has enacted laws outlawing bonded labor and assuring the freedom of Nepalese children.

The Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 2000 prohibits employing children younger than 14 in any type of labor. However, the government has enforced this law only in a few special cases.

The Bonded Labor (Prohibition) Act of 2002 banned the bonded labor system and legally freed all kamaiyas, men and women who work as indentured laborers when they cannot repay a loan to a lender – often a feudal landowner. The kamaiya system is thought to have originated in the 18th century.

But because the 2002 act has not been effectively implemented, the bonded labor tradition remains in effect, says Kaushila Chaudhary, the president of Freed Kamaiya Women Development Forum and a former kamlari. The practice includes sexual exploitation, rape and even murder of girls and women, she says. 

Freed Kamaiya Women Development Forum was set up in 2008 to help former kamaiya women and children reintegrate into society through vocational training and income generation activities, education and job opportunities. 

 

Poverty is the main reason families send girls into indentured labor, Shanta Chaudhary says.

Krishna Chaudhary, 19, was one such girl.

She comes from Thakurdwara village development committee in Bardiya, a district in Mid-Western Nepal.

After her father died in 1997 and her mother eloped with another man, she was left alone with an older sister.

Krishna Chaudhary and her sister went to live with an uncle in the village. They were often verbally and physically abused, Krishna Chaudhary says. When Krishna Chaudhary’s older sister was 13, the girls’ uncle arranged her marriage to a 35-year-old man who took both sisters to his far-off home.

When a relative of Krishna Chaudhary’s brother-in-law started sexually harassing her, she left the house and returned to her uncle. In 2002, when she was 7, her uncle took her to Kathmandu to work for a family there.

So began her life as a kamlari.

She encountered many forms of abuse while working for the Kathmandu family. On most days, her employers would lock her in a room when they went out to work, Krishna Chaudhary says. Two years after she went to work for the family, her employer’s younger brother began molesting her.

“I tolerated [it] for many months, but there was no change in his behavior,” Krishna Chaudhary says. “When it was too much, I pleaded with my employer to take me to the village.”

She was taken back to her village, but she had no place to stay and no family to live with. Villagers helped her to find work with another family in Bheemdatt, in Far-Western Nepal.

“There were 11 members in the employer’s family house, and I had to work from 3 in the morning till beyond midnight,” she says. “I was compelled to eat the leftovers and the stale food, with worms in it sometimes.”

In addition to performing the household work, she was asked to massage her employer’s wife for two hours every night, she says. When she was unable to do it properly, she was scolded and beaten.

Recalling these experiences, her eyes fill with tears.

Kamlaris are often mistreated or abused, says Raju Dhamala, former executive director of Friends of Needy Children, a now-defunct nongovernmental organization working for the rights of kamlaris.

The organization recorded reports of abuse of kamlaris. From January 2008 until the organization ran out of funding in July 2013, five kamlaris committed suicide by burning or hanging themselves, 23 became pregnant as a result of abuse by their employers, 14 reported being raped, and 26 went missing.

Hema Chaudhary, of Tikapur, a municipality in the Kailali district of Nepal’s Far-Western region, has seen firsthand the unfortunate legacy of the abuse borne by kamlaris.

In 2001, Hema Chaudhary sent her daughter away to work as a domestic laborer because she was too poor to look after her, she says. She was devastated when she learned her daughter was being sexually abused by her employer.

When the employers found out the girl was pregnant, they sent her home, Hema Chaudhary says. But within a month, out of a continued need for money, Hema Chaudhary sent her daughter to work in another house in Kathmandu. There, her daughter gave birth to a girl.

“She gave birth to Simran as a consequence of rape by her employer,” Hema Chaudhary says.

Simran is now 12. Her mother has married, left the village and ended all contact with the family.

“With this incident, it became hard for me and my daughter to live in our community,” Hema Chaudhary says. “Everyone started hating us for having a child without the father.”

Hema Chaudhary has been her granddaughter’s guardian ever since her daughter left. Because her daughter’s former employer declines to acknowledge he is Simran’s father, the girl simply goes by her given name at school.

Without a legal claim to her father’s name and caste, Simran is unable to obtain birth registration and citizenship certificates, Hema Chaudhary says. And without those documents, she will continue to face problems in the future.

Some Nepalese who employ young kamlaris believe they are doing an act of kindness, giving the girls food and access to education they did not have in their remote village homes.

Summa Budhathoki, a doughnut maker in Kathmandu and mother of two small children, hired a 14-year-old kamlari to help her with the household chores, she says.

Budhathoki found the girl with the help of friends in the Far-Western development region of Nepal. She kept the girl for two years. She paid the girl 6,500 rupees ($65) a year to help her with cleaning, dishwashing and laundry.

“When I brought kamlari, she came happily, for money and free food and accommodation,” she says in a phone interview. “I didn’t force anyone.”

Budhathoki acknowledges it is illegal to employ minor girls – in Nepal, girls under 14 – as domestic servants. They are hired because they insist on working for a living, she says.

Budhathoki says she is helping a young girl when she hires her as a kamlari. It is not the same as taking on a bonded laborer who does not earn anything, she says.

“We compensate them by way of money, education and accommodation,” Budhathoki says. “I am also very sorry to hear about bad treatments often heaped on the kamlaris.”

Local organizations working for the rights of kamlaris were outraged by Srijana’s death.

Soon after Srijana’s death, organizations such as the United Committee for the Elimination of Kamlari Practice, the Freed Kamlari Development Forum and Freed Kamaiya Women Development Forum organized street protests and called for general strikes in the western districts where most kamlaris come from. 

Members of the local organizations, together with former kamlaris and their families, also held street protests in Kathmandu and visited government offices, political party offices and human rights organizations demanding that kamlaris’ rights be honored.

Soon after a protest got underway in Kathmandu in June 2013, the protest leaders were invited to discuss their demands with government officials. After seven hours of discussion, the parties agreed to a 10-point manifesto for kamlari rights.

One key demand was compensation to the family of Srijana Chaudhary. The government promised a grant of 500,000 rupees ($5,000), which it paid two months later, Shanta Chaudhary says.

It also agreed to promulgate the fact that the Bonded Labor (Prohibition) Act of 2002 declares kamlaris free.

In a written statement and again at a media conference, the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare declared that the kamlari system is illegal and ordered that all kamlaris be freed.

The government also set up a high-level committee to investigate the deaths of Srijana Chaudhary and another kamlari, Meghi Chaudhary, who died by fire in August 2011, committee coordinator Mohan Koirala says in a phone interview.

Meghi Chaudhary’s parents allege she was killed by her employers, while the police investigation has ruled the death a suicide, Koirala says.

But, in spite of these efforts, the government has yet to fulfill other elements of the agreement, including promises to address kamlaris’ needs for education, health care, employment and rehabilitation.

The kamlari organizations continue to engage in talks with government officials about the legal and social services they were promised in 2013, says Fakala Tharu, legal adviser of the Freed Kamlari Development Forum.

“We are still waiting for the government response,” he says. “We have no plans to protest in the near future.”

While many young girls suffer for years as kamlaris, some are rescued by activist organizations or concerned neighbors.

From 1996 until it phased out operations in 2013, Friends of Needy Children rescued more than 12,000 kamlaris, returning them to their families or placing them in government hostels, the organization reports.

In addition to establishing hostels in the six most affected districts, the government has been assisting kamlaris by helping them to find jobs and engage in income-generating activities, says Ram Prasad Bhattarai, spokesperson for the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare.

The government has allocated 3 million rupees ($30,000) in the 2014/15 budget for a kamlari skills development program, he says.

In a bid to prevent more girls from becoming kamlaris, the Freed Kamaiya Women Development Forum has been counseling parents against sending their daughters into domestic labor, Kaushila Chaudhary says.

As of October, the organization has rehabilitated 600 kamlaris back to their communities by providing vocational training and small grants to enable them to start businesses. It also has motivated their parents to become financially stable with income-generating activities, including pig-rearing, goat farming and vegetable farming.

In spite of these efforts, and the government ban, the kamlari system continues.

Five months after the government announced the ban on keeping kamlaris, the Freed Kamlari Development Forum informally surveyed 1,000 selected Tharu families in the Kailali, Dang, Banke, Bardiya and Kanchanpur districts, says Fakala Tharu.

The survey, conducted in November and December of 2013, found that 376 girls from these families were still working as kamlaris. Tharu believes the survey only revealed the tip of the iceberg.

“If a more detailed survey is done in the future, the actual number of kamlaris will be higher,” Tharu says. “Finding the actual number is very difficult because the parents do not want to reveal that their daughters are working as kamlari.”

But Bhattarai says the government’s ban on the practice of kamlari has had an impact.

“After the abolition of the kamlari practice, nobody is allowed to keep kamlaris at home,” he says. “For a year now, we haven’t heard any news on the death or rape of kamlaris.”

Giri, the spokesperson of the Metropolitan Police Range in Lalitpur, agrees. As of September 2014, the department has not received any complaints since the government announcement in June 2013, he says.

“If kamlaris come with the cases of discrimination or violence, we do the necessary investigation and then punish the culprit,” he says.

The high-level committee set up in June 2013 was charged with finding the actual number of remaining kamlaris, but gathering that information has proved difficult, Koirala says. He is hopeful the committee can publish its findings by the end of 2014.

For one kamlari, at least, the story ends happily.

In 2009, a neighbor who saw the abuse and torture that Krishna Chaudhary endured in the house in Bheemdatt took her to the office of Friends of Needy Children. As she had no family to return to, the organization placed her in a hostel for freed kamlaris.

Krishna Chaudhary lives at the hostel in Bheemdatt with 43 other girls, all of whom receive food, shelter and access to education and health care. She is studying to be a nurse and midwife.

Once she completes her studies in October 2015, she plans to return to her village in Bardiya.

“I want to do social work,” she says. “I want to do all I can, within my capacity, to help the people of my village.”

Shanta Chaudhary, Krishna Chaudhary, Meghi Chaudhary and Hema Chaudhary are not related to Gangu Chaudhary and Srijana Chaudhary. The last name is shared by members of the caste.

GPJ translated this article from Nepali.