The scrubbing, cooking and sweeping started as early as 3 a.m. When the landlord’s children awoke hours later, the 9-year-old girl got them ready for a school she could only dream of attending.
Afternoons and evenings were spent cutting hay and tending animals. Around 10 p.m., she’d collapse for a few hours before starting again, seven days a week.
It must be my fate, she thought, a feeling eventually replaced by anger and bitterness.
Every January or February she’d see her family for a week, only to watch her father “sell” her back into another year of drudgery for a mere $25. Although some of her friends spent most of their childhood this way, she was lucky: A civic group persuaded her parents to end the arrangement after three years.
For generations, ethnic Tharu girls as young as 6 have been handed over to landlords and brokers under a bondage system known as kamlari. The legacy of crushing poverty, caste and intergenerational debt has left many of the young victims scarred by sexual and emotional abuse.
“The landlord’s son beat me many times,” said Bishnu Kumari, 17, who was rescued a few years ago. “I felt dirty, unlucky to be born a girl. I was a slave.”
These days, however, former kamlari victims are fighting back with notable success, the result of changing laws, activist pressure and nascent democracy in Nepal.
Charity groups have rescued thousands of girls in the last year, generally during the brief period when the annual agreements are renewed, by convincing parents that the practice is unjust, a daughter’s education is worthwhile and that there are far less exploitative ways to earn family income.
Since most deals have traditionally been struck during the winter Maghe Sankranti holiday, rescued girls assisted by aid groups are staging street dramas, anti-exploitation marches and musicals. They also mount rescue missions in which parents and landlords are confronted and embarrassed into releasing the girls during the annual festival and other high-profile events.
The approach has proved so successful that the U.S.-based Nepal Youth Foundation estimates that 1,000 Tharu girls remain indentured, most in remote villages or with powerful families in the capital, Katmandu, compared with about 14,000 a decade ago.
Former victims Sunita Chaudhary, 17, and Anita Chaudhary, 18, who aren’t related, sing, act and write scripts for the street plays put on here in this rural part of south-central Nepal, drawing on their experience of dire poverty, alcoholic fathers, exploitative landlords and low female social status.
At the end of the drama about girls forced into bondage, the troupe asks audiences who is to blame and how the play should end, sparking spirited debate. Many villagers are illiterate, have never seen a play and forget that it’s not real. “People grab me and threaten to beat me up,” said Hom Roka, 23, who plays the landlord.
These are complemented by “girls clubs,” composed of former victims who urge new kamlari recruits to resist, backed up by adults in the community who have agreed to help fight the practice.
“Sometimes the landlords try to hit us,” said Manjita Chaudhary, 21, Sunita’s sister and a former indentured servant. “They lie, saying they educate and help the girls. But we usually wear them down.”
In addition to carrying psychological scars, rescued girls have missed many years of schooling. Aid groups fund accelerated training to help them get back into mainstream classes, or in extreme cases, enter school for the first time.
A side effect of these efforts has been to swell the number of public classrooms: A dearth of girls restrooms can sometimes force female students having their periods to walk more than a mile to find a secluded spot, and civic groups have had to focus on school construction.
“I have 180 in my classroom,” said Anita. “It can be quite difficult to hear the teacher.”
A major parental concern is lost income. Although $25 to $50 for a daughter’s annual labor may sound piddling to an American, it’s huge in these dirt-poor communities. So activists started providing the families of liberated girls with a baby pig or goat, which sells at maturity for a similar amount.
“Who’d have thought a piglet could save a girl?” said Som Paneru, the Nepal Youth Foundation’s in-country director.
Another concern, in a region with widespread alcoholism, is that fathers will drink the money away.
“The women told us, under no circumstances give money to the men,” said Olga Murray, the charity’s founder.
So piglets — or goats for some very poor families who even lack table scraps to feed a pig — are explicitly given to the girls, who, once educated and empowered, can better stand up to the men than the wives.
The poverty fueling the kamlari system was evident in remote Suraikula Narayanpur village, where 12-year-old Asha Chaudhary, who is not related to the other Chaudharys, was recently freed by aid groups after four years of servitude. Her father had leased her out to pay back a loan for fertilizer. The nine-member family lives in a two-room house where several undernourished, half-naked, sore-covered siblings play on the dirt floor as Asha chews on a dirty blue comb.
Life wasn’t always so difficult for lower-caste Tharu. A century ago, they controlled these fertile plains near the Indian border, in part because of a natural resistance to malaria that higher castes lacked. After the disease’s eradication around 1960, higher-caste people streamed down from the mountains.
Tharu, by their own admission, were easy targets. Largely illiterate, without property records but with a weakness for alcohol, many fell victim to theft and trickery.
Purna Prasad Chaudhary, coordinator for an emancipated group, said that half a century ago his grandfather, while drunk, had beaten a cow, a sacred animal in Hindu culture. A member of the Brahman priestly caste confronted his grandfather who, fearing that he wouldn’t be reincarnated, agreed to give over half his land.
The Brahman immediately registered his windfall, then offered the man’s family food, alcohol and loans, insisting each time on repayment in land.
“Soon we became sharecroppers on the land we’d owned,” Chaudhary said. “We lost everything.”
In 2000, a related kamaiya system involving adults was outlawed, as were debts passed down for generations, but child servitude wasn’t made illegal until 2006. After that, the government promised free housing, retraining and education to dispossessed Tharu, although corruption and government inefficiency have undercut implementation, civic groups said.
With the kamlari system now under siege, former victims are daring to dream.
“Before I was taken away, my brother once asked me what I wanted to be and I told him, a lawyer,” said Anita Chaudhary. “Now that I’m back in school, I’d still like to be a lawyer. So many girls are without rights or hope. I want to help protect them.”