Slavery is one of the worst forms of cruelty against all living beings. It has existed across time and space. It dates back to ancient times and its traces can be found across time, space, people, continents, civilisations etc. However, it is surprising that despite being outlawed by the international agencies and local laws, slavery in the modern day is a reality.
Kamlari is one such form of slavery in Nepal where young girls as old as four years and women across all age groups are forced to work as bonded labourers in the houses of the rich landlords. The employed girls and women do not receive any monetary benefits from their employers. Instead, male members of their families are given an annual sum or provided with grains against the annual work carried out by the employee.
These girls and women belong to the Tharu community who find their origin in India, whose forefathers had shifted to Nepal centuries ago. Tharus have traditionally been involved in the agriculture related works. With their dominant presence in the western Nepal, Tharus were forced away from their fertile lands after a major malaria had struck Nepal in 1950s. Known for their immunity against this mosquito borne disease, they scattered in the western and southern Nepal and their fertile lands were now owned by the landlords. Left in dire poverty and no land to mow, male members of the community worked as bonded labour (Kamaiya) in big farms, and their daughters and wives were given house bound work.
As the practice goes, on the occasion of Maghi Festival, agents visit villages to lure the poor parents of these girls and promise to employ them at a rich landlords’ house with false promises of providing better life quality, education and food. In 1980s and 90s, a movement against such inhumane practice was launched to ban it. However, after years of struggle, the practice was outlawed in 2013 with the support of the International Organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations including Backward Society Education and Nepal Youth Foundation.
Till date, more than 13000 girls have been rescued by the NGOs with the help of local administration and the police. These girls have been provided vocational training along with an opportunity to receive education through government provided scholarship. Rescued girls are given shelters in the Government run hostels, which have been constructed by the NGO in five districts Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Dang and Kanchanpura.
While these efforts at the NGO and Government level have been able to rescue and rehabilitate Kamlari girls, their lives in rehabilitation are marred by acute challenges, especially on the socio-economic, education and employment front. On the social front, rescued girls get married with the help of their families but those who are abandoned by their families/ orphan, have been waiting for their resettlement back into the society.
In such cases, girls old as 35 are logged in the hostels and receive a meagre amount in the form of fellowship for a period of 11 months. The monthly stipend varies from 3000 NPR to 8000 NPR. In this limited amount they need to manage their food, lodging, education, stationary, personal hygiene which is near to impossible. During a visit to one such hostels early this year in the Narti village of Dang district,the author found girls living in deplorable conditions as they had been waiting for the transferring of the scholarships to their account for last four months. It was not for the first times that they had to wait for long but it is a regular pattern of scholarships. As a result, they were able to afford nutritious food.
Also, personal hygiene is yet another challenge to these girls and due to high cost of hygiene products, girls are forced to use dirty cloths, risking their lives. These hostels lack any emergency medical services and, in several cases, girls are in dire need of councillor. During interaction with most of these girls, they narrated horrific experiences of physical abuses by their landlords and their family members. While NGOs visit these girls occasionally, their lives continue to remain in danger. The capacity of these hostels is no more than 70 residents and security of the premises depends on themselves since no security personal is appointed.
One can only feel the pain of these young girls who have been rescued and rehabilitated on record but they still await to see resettlement with a better way of life. Several girls are graduate and wish to study more but due to lack of wholistic financial support, their dreams continue to remain a dream. While the world is witnessing the ire of COVID-19, those already in critical living conditions, have double the challenges. Therefore, although, in the present time, slavery has been banned across globe but in countries like Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, it exists in some way or the other. Bonded labourers at brick kilns, junk yards, tanneries are some of the common form of bonded labour in the context of South Asian countries.
To conclude, Kamlari system in Nepal may have received support from the civil society and the government in banning it and these girls may have been provided a place to live, but till date they wait for their fair resettlement in the society. Meanwhile, Government’spoor response in providing livelihood, employment, education, and social security need to be improved. In panic situations like COVID-19, the responsibility becomes more in reaching out to them and provide any help possible.
Sarita Nandmehar has submitted her PhD to the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her PhD work focused on the rehabilitation and reintegration of Kamlari in Nepal. She holds a Master’s Degree in Political Science from Delhi University and MPhil in South Asian Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has taught at Delhi University and was a visiting faculty at the University of Muhammadiyah Malang, Indonesia until recently.