|Nepal sells its girls to servitude
Nine-year-old Manjita Chaudhary had never spent a night away from her parents when her father sold her to a Nepalese policeman for US$25.
(Pictured, Jayarani Tharu, left, rescued from slavery in Kathmandu, Nepal. Beside her is Manjita Chaudhary of Nepal Youth Foundation ).
She left her family in western Nepal and travelled some 200 kilometers to her employer's home near the Indian border.
Her harsh new life began at 4am, the start of a daily routine in which she would clean her employer's house, wash dishes, cook and then go to his relatives' homes to do the same, before falling asleep just shy of midnight.
“I couldn't cope with the work, so my employer's wife would beat me with pots and pans, and threaten to sell me to another man,'' Chaudhary, now 22, told AFP.
“I was so scared, I couldn't even cry in front of them, I would just cry quietly in the bathroom.’’
When she met her father a year later, she begged to return home, but her father, a bonded laborer, said they could not afford to raise her or her younger sister, whom they had also sold into domestic slavery.
Nepal's indentured “kamlari'' girls – some as young as six – are subject to beatings and sexual violence by their employers.
Every January, when Nepal's Tharu community celebrates the Maghi festival, marking the end of winter, destitute Tharu families also sign contracts worth as little as 2,500 rupees (US$25) a year, leasing their daughters to work in strangers' homes.
The annual tradition is unusual even in a region where illegal, bonded slavery and child labour are rife and where it is common to see children working in tea-shops, homes and even on construction sites.
The kamlari tradition was outlawed in 2006, but persists across the country.
Chaudhary worked for three years as a kamlari, before activists from the US-based Nepal Youth Foundation approached her father and offered to support and educate his daughters if he ended their contracts.
At the age of 12, Chaudhary learnt to read and write. Today, the business undergraduate cuts a confident figure, fashionably dressed in a trench coat and conversant in three languages.
But the childhood scars remain, compelling her to volunteer as an advocate for kamlari rights.
“I was robbed of my childhood. It was a horrible time and I will do whatever I can to end this practice, to free other girls,'' she said.
Although the kamlari tradition originated in the plains of southwestern Nepal, activists say it now survives on the patronage of wealthy families in the capital.
Kamal Guragain, legal officer at the Nepalese non-profit CWISH (Children-Women In Social Service and Human Rights), estimates that Nepal is home to at least 1,000 kamlaris, with nearly half of them working in Kathmandu.
So far, no employer has been punished for hiring or mistreating kamlaris, despite Guragain filing a stack of cases demanding prosecution and compensation to victims.
After a 12-year-old kamlari died of burns in the custody of her employer last March, sparking huge protests, the government said it would end the illegal practice.
But nearly a year later, little has changed.
Ram Prasad Bhattarai, spokesman for the ministry of women, children and social welfare, told AFP that the activists were “too provocative and rights-oriented.’’
“We are focused on empowering kamlaris by offering them education and training opportunities as beauticians and seamstresses [after they leave work],'' he said. But “we have no intention of going to every household in Kathmandu and organising raids,'' he added.