From slavery to school
The kamalari system, under which Nepalese girls are sold into domestic slavery, is thriving through generations. Thirteen thousand have been freed, partly through Plan Ireland’s Kamalari Abolition Project, but many are still trapped
Nepal portraits: a former Kamalari girl at school. Photograph: Shona Hamilton/Plan
Nepal portraits: the Choudhary family, who escaped the kamalari system after Plan gave them land, weed crops. Photograph: Alf Berg/Plan
Nepal portraits: a Nepalese girl and her younger brother. Photograph: Alf Berg/Plan
Nepal portraits: Gulabi and Rita Chaudhary turn grass into sweeping brushes. Photograph: Una Mullally
Nepal portraits: boys and girls at the Child Club are confident, laugh and encourage each other. Photograph: Una Mullally
Nepal is at either a turning point or a standstill. Because politicians failed to meet last year’s deadline for drawing up a constitution, the chief justice is the prime minister, overseeing elections next month. Frequent strikes paralyse Kathmandu, the sprawling capital. The porous border with India is one of the world’s busiest slave-trafficking routes.
Nobody knows exactly how many Nepalese women and girls are trafficked to India and forced into prostitution each year. It could be as many as 10,000. But one of Nepal’s problems, the terrible legacy of kamalari practices, whereby young girls are sent into domestic slavery, is gradually being overcome.
Plan, the charity that promotes children’s rights and hopes to end child poverty, is trying to eradicate the practice. With other organisations, it is rescuing girls from their masters’ homes, reintroducing them to education and offering their families livelihoods. This work is necessary because some kamalari girls have been beaten or sexually assaulted, or have disappeared or even died, in the course of such work.
“It’s very difficult to talk numbers given the lack of data,” says Mattias Bryneson, Plan’s new country director in Nepal, who has just taken over from Donal Keane, an Irishman, in his office in Kathmandu. In the past decade Plan has rescued 3,309 of the 13,000 kamalari girls who have been taken out of slavery. It’s hard to break the cycle of slavery: rescuing girls is slow, it involves many interventions, and the real work starts after liberation.
The geography of Nepal can loosely be separated into the peaks of the Himalayas, hilly jungles where the tiger population is growing, and flatlands in the west, where people subsist in an agricultural economy. Buffalo are machinery. Creeks and ponds are where the washing gets done. Soon the rice fields will be ready to harvest.
At the extreme west of the country, eight kilometres from India, Dhangadhi is a ramshackle market city buoyed by a border economy. It’s hot here in September at the end of the monsoon, with temperatures of at least 30 degrees, and mosquitoes bite through denim.
The surrounding villages are rural and isolated. Houses are mostly well-constructed mud dwellings that are clean, dark and cool. Kamalari practices affect the Tharu people, who make up four million of Nepal’s estimated 30 million people. Marginalised from land they once owned, generations of girls have become domestic slaves. Girls, their mothers and grandmothers may all have been kamalari, and in some cases whole families of children would have been enslaved.
In her family’s house, Manissa Chaudhary, who is 16, tells her story. She was a domestic slave for three years until she was rescued two years ago. Her work was to “collect grass from the field to feed the cows, wash plates, wash the cows. I wanted my mother and my father,” she says. Her mother, Assa, was a domestic slave for a decade from when she was six or seven. “That time it was custom, ritual; everyone went.”
Assa’s husband, Ramcsandsara, also worked in bonded labour as a child. “I was sent to work in my early years. The landlord’s children went to school. I wanted to go to school. Sometimes I would take their books, and when I was going to wash the cows in the field I would bring the books to read.”When his daughter was rescued, Ramcsandsara was sent on a two-day business course. Outside the house his business products peck at the ground: they are chickens that he rears and sells in the market. “We are poor,” he says. “But I can read.”
Manissa’s elder sister, Monitra, also worked as a kamalari for four years. Now Monitra talks of the dangers of trafficking. “Girls can be sold into brothels. Middlemen see them, and if a girl is sold she can be infected with HIV.”
Monitra’s fear of HIV is not unfounded. The rate of infection is high for trafficked Nepalese girls: 60 per cent among those who are trafficked before the age of 15, and 38 per cent overall. “Don’t trust any unknown person. They may offer you a job and a better life. They also say, ‘I can marry you.’ We shouldn’t trust promises,” says Monitra.