Punita Chaudhary was barely eight when her impoverished parents sold her for US$50 to a local middleman who worked as an agent finding domestic servants for families in Kathmandu and other Nepalese cities.
Chaudhary ended up with a family in Kathmandu where she had to work for 18 hours a day and was allowed just a few hours sleep. “I did all that for the sake of my family and now I regret it,” Chaudhary told IRIN in Kathmandu.
For nearly six years, Chaudhary, 16, had to endure verbal abuse, mental torture and physical abuse at the hands of her employers, a married couple who were working as teacher and doctor, said Chaudhary. She also had to work for dozens of her employers’ relatives and friends in different houses, she said.
“One day I decided to flee and now I am safe,” said Chaudhary, who is now going to school with the help of local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Nepalese Youth Foundation (NYOF) and Friends of Needy Children (FNC). NYOF and FNC are involved in rehabilitating indentured domestic workers through their Indentured Daughters Program (IDP).
Over 20,000 indentured domestic workers
According to NYOF, there are over 20,000 indentured domestic workers, also known as ‘Kamlari’.
The ‘Kamlari’ system originated nearly 50 years ago when poor families belonging to the Tharu community, an indigenous ethnic group in southern Nepal’s Terai region, provided daughters as domestic servants in exchange for cash.
The practice is still prevalent and activists have started to call it “internal trafficking” of girls who are literally sold off by their parents with the help of local middlemen.
The young Tharu girls, aged 6-10, are taken mainly from the districts of Dang, Bardiya, Kanchanpur, Kailali and Banke, all about 600km west of the capital.
Most of the girls are brought to households in Nepal’s cities and towns where employers include politicians, bureaucrats, local NGO workers, teachers, journalists, human rights activists, teachers and government officials, according to NYOF.
“This is a dreadful practice and we should help to rescue as many girls as possible,” said NYOF’s executive director, Som Paneru, who initiated the plan to rescue and rehabilitate the indentured domestic workers.
In the last eight years, NYOF and FNC have helped to rescue over 4,000 girls, all whom have now joined schools or informal education programmes.
|This is a dreadful practice and we should help to rescue as many girls as possible.|
Besides the labour exploitation, the girls also suffer from sexual abuse, rape, physical torture, starvation and neglect of education, and there are also many cases of the girls being trafficked for prostitution both in Nepal and to India, according to FNC. In addition, many girls also disappear once they are purchased by the middlemen.
“It’s difficult to rescue most of these young girls as their whereabouts are mostly unknown and most of the time the parents do not cooperate,” said Man Bahadur Chettri from FNC. He explained that NYOF and FNC have filed court cases against the agents and the parents to successfully get them to cooperate.
Nepal has laws against employing children under 16 but they are yet to be strongly implemented, said NYOF’s Paneru.