When Asha was eight, her parents sent her to work as a domestic servant in the home of a wealthier landowner. Not forever, just for a year. But one year turned into ten and Asha didn’t come home until she was 18.
“That first night, I was really scared,” Asha says. “I didn’t speak the same language as the landowner’s family. I didn’t know anyone. I cried a lot.”
I met Asha a few weeks ago when I was in Nepal with Plan, looking at how we can prevent child labour and support working children.
Asha comes from the Terai region in the western lowlands of Nepal. Her family is Tharu, one of Nepal’s indigenous minorities. Tharu families have very few opportunities to earn a livable income. Most don’t have their own land and are forced to work as agricultural day-labourers. Providing the necessities of food, shelter and clothing becomes an all-consuming task for many Tharu parents. They don’t have money left over for education. They don’t have reserve funds if a family member gets sick or if a parent is unable to find work that day. Oftentimes girls are seen as little more than a drain on the family’s income, as just another exploitable resource.
“I worked from very early in the morning until very late at night,” Asha says. “I would get up around 4:30 am and wouldn’t get to sleep until 10 or 11 pm. I never had any days off.”
I have been to a few countries in my life now, and never have I seen more working children than I did in Nepal. In 2001 the International Labour Organization estimated that over 42% of Nepali children, approximately 2.6 million children between 5 to 16 years of age, are working. Those figures are 9 years old. Like much of Asia, Nepal has a growing youth population, so I can only imagine what the figures are now in 2010.
Kamalari is a system of bonded labour. Under it, girls are sent to work as indentured domestic servants in the houses of those more financially fortunate than them – usually higher-caste landowners, business people or civil servants. Girls are usually around 8 or 9 when they are sent to work, though some have been sent as young as 5 or 6. Can you imagine? A 5 year old being expected to clean the house and take care of other children??
Oftentimes the girls are taken far away from their communities to different parts of the country and areas where they don’t speak the same language. Alone and without family or community support, they are vulnerable to all sorts of harms, including physical violence and possible sexual abuse. Some have been trafficked into brothels in India via open borders where identity cards aren’t checked and no questions are asked.
Plan estimates that between 10 and 12 thousand girls are currently working as indentured domestic servants under the kamalari system. Plan Nepal, with the support of Plan Germany, are working to change this in 5 districts of western Nepal.
Since 2005, Plan and its local partner Society Welfare Action Nepal, have rescued and supported 1,739 kamalari girls.
“There are less than 100 girls left to be rescued in Dang district,” says Pratibha Chaudhary, Plan Nepal’s kamalari abolition project manager who is herself from the Tharu community. “Before, even district officials themselves had kamalari girls working in their houses. But now the district administration has declared Dang kamalari-free and we are all working to keep it that way. But still, there is much work to be done.”
Plan is working to dismantle the kamalari system on a number of fronts. “In order to be successful, our work has to be multi-faceted, we need to come at this from a variety of different angles,” says Donal Keane, country director of Plan Nepal. “In addition to rescuing and rehabilitating these girls, we help them get back into school or provide alternative education support, we give them training in a trade, and support them in starting their own businesses. We also support parents so they can earn a decent living for their families and don’t have to send their daughters to work. And of course we run public awareness campaigns at all levels – from the villages right up on to the national stage.”
Plan has started scaling up its fight against the kamalari system, expanding into the districts of Kailali and Kanchanpur this year and aiming to rescue an additional 4,500 girls from indentured servitude.
“We still need to re-educate the landowners and the higher-income families who are recruiting these girls,” says Prem Pant, manager of the Banke program unit. “They need to see how exploiting the poverty of these families is wrong. The laws are on the books, the challenge is in implementation, enforcement and fighting indifference.”
Asha is doing much better these days. When I met her she was laughing and busily preparing meals for myself and some other guests. With Plan’s support, she now runs a restaurant called the Lawa Juni Hotel, lawa juni means “new life” in Tharu. “My former bosses, the landowners who used to work me so hard, they now come to my restaurant,” says Asha, blushing with obvious pride. “Now they compliment me on my cooking and speak to me with respect.”