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Three generations of former Kamlari women. From left, Lalita Chaudhary with her grandmother Pataiya and mother Chismani. Photo: Alina Karki/IM

Breaking the cycle of slavery

Published 22 August 2017

Slavery comes in different disguises. It can be in the form of human trafficking or it can be a child who will spend her entire childhood in servitude to pay back a family debt. To me, it came with a face of a young timid looking girl. Lalita Chaudhary, 20 doesn't recall much of her childhood besides the endless chores. She was too young to remember what it felt like to be separated from her family and live amongst strangers who would practically own her.

In Nepal, the bonded slavery system bound poor and indebted Tharus into lifelong servitude until the practice was abolished in 2000. Tharu is an indigenous community residing in southern plains of Nepal. In the 1950s, the government of Nepal worked towards eradicating malaria from dense forests in the plains. This resulted in an influx of outsiders migrating towards the plains and encroachment of Tharu lands. People from the community found themselves on the brink of poverty and were forced into bonded slavery to pay off their families' debt, generation after generation. Under this bonded slavery system, men worked as Kamaiyas while women worked as Kamlaris.

During my visit to Dang, southwestern part of Nepal, I met with three generations of former Kamlari women from the same family. Lalita comes from a family of Kamaiyas and Kamlaris. Pataiya Chaudhary, 65 years is Lalita's grandmother. For 20 years, Pataiya worked as a Kamalari in a neighboring town. She recalls being so poor that she had to send her children to live and work in rich landlord's house because they didn't have a proper house and there was never enough to eat. Mahendra Chaudhary and Chismani Chaudhary, her son, and daughter in law worked as bonded labors as well.

When there is no house to live in, no food to eat, no one to look after you, it feels good when someone comes along and takes you into their house and gives you something to eat. How they treat you or pay you poorly for your labor seems secondary. This was the case for Mahendra, Lalita's father. His mother sends him to work for a landlord when he was a young boy. Like Lalita, he doesn't remember much of his childhood except hard labor. He recalls, "It would cost Rs.1 (0.084 Swedish Krona) to enroll in school which my parents couldn't afford. Because of that Rs. 1, my life took a wrong turn. I thought I would never send my children to work in other's houses and fields but I couldn't even feed my children when they were with me."Chismani shares her story with bitterness, "I was born a Kamalari but growing up I still had hoped to be free. When I got married and my husband too was a Kamaiya. I felt I had a broken fate."

Chismani was determined to break the cycle of slavery and live as a family. She shares, “We had lived half of our lives with only half-full stomach. We didn't have a house to raise our own family. We couldn't let our children go through what we had gone through." The family worked very hard and started saving as much as possible to lease a small plot of land and start farming. With this determination, both of them left to start a new free life. Still, it was not enough to support their family of 5, including Lalita's 2 younger siblings. The couple was so desperate and poor that they felt the only way out was to send their daughter, Lalita to work as Kamlari in exchange for sending her to school. She was one of the lucky ones as many landlords prohibit their help from attending school.

In 2010, when Lalita was 13, she was identified as a Kamalari by a social worker who eventually rescued her and returned to her family. She continued her education in Tulsipur High School, a public school which is one of the 24 schools IM works within Dang. Her parents are very happy as she is attending her school. Mahendra shares, "We were uneducated and were easily fooled and mistreated by others. Our children will have better future than us. They will be treated as respectable people and not like illiterates." IM with its local partner SEED works to create a favorable learning environment by improving school governance on quality education, discrimination and violence-free school environment, girls friendly school environment, child-friendly teaching-learning practices and inclusive education. SEED regularly engages with the community to advocate for children's right to clean drinking water in school, availability of running water in school toilets and sanitary pads for girl students.

Today, the Chaudhary family are working very hard. The couple has bought a plot of 0.05 acre and has leased 0.6 acres of land where they plant rice, wheat, corn, and vegetables. They also work as laborers to make a little extra income to send their children's education expenses. Lalita recently took her 10th-grade examination from Tulsipur High School and is waiting for her result. She shares that she enjoys going to the school. "The teachers are very good to us and I enjoy going to school. My favorite subject is economics." With education, children like Lalita can have a better future and are less likely to be exploited. IM is grateful towards its donors who have made it possible for children like Lalita in Nepal to receive a quality education which can determine their future.

Chismani Chaudhary was determined to live a free life with her husband and her children so she worked hard for it. Photo: Alina Karki/IM