Human Bondage

December 26, 2009 at 5:45 am Leave a comment

Human Bondage

DURGA LAL K.C

DANG, DEC 26 – Sundarmati Chaudhary learnt how to wash dishes when she was four years old. A kamalari (bonded labourer), she continued washing dishes until she reached the age of nine, and was the sole breadwinner for her family of five. Today, in the village of Sonpur in the district of Dang, she doesn’t have to wash dishes any longer. Instead, she wears down pencils at the local school.

In this village in the western Tarai, the kamalari system is a generation-old practice that forces young girls from the Tharu community to work as bonded labourers in the houses of landlords. Though outlawed by a 2006 Supreme Court order, the practice still exists, and many incidents where young kamalari girls having been physically and sexually exploited have been reported.

Here, in Sonpur, Tharu parents are pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm among their daughters for education. “Our lives have changed,” says Mamta Chaudhary of Lalmatiya, “At least this wave of education will not let our daughters be employed as bonded labourers.”

Earlier, during the Maghi festival of the Tharus, prices would be quoted for Tharu girls who would be employed as kamalaris. But now, with nearly all of the girls at school, parents believe this tradition will die out. “We have to end this tradition within our lifetime,” says Saraswati Chaudhary of Gadhwa. She says that if she had been educated when she was young, she wouldn’t have had to face so many difficulties. “We are trying to educate our daughters because we don’t want them to have the life we had.”

This turn to an exploitative tradition has also meant that parents are now no longer dependent on their daughters for income. With their girls in school, most parents are now working as labourers. “Our daughters had a tough life when they were young. Now, we want them to study,” says Ram Janki Chaudhary of Chailahi.

Dang was declared a kamalari-free district in January earlier this year. Before the announcement was made, it was estimated that at least 5,000 girls were employed as kamalaris. After the announcement, the district child welfare committee issued a notice to all those who employed Tharu girls forcefully. Despite these moves, however, landlords still employed the girls, following which the district administration began raiding houses to rescue girls. “We found that there were those who deliberately disregarded the notice,” says chief district officer Rishi Ram Dhakal.

When the ‘kamalari-free district’ announcement was made, at least 4,500 girls had been rescued, according to district officials. Of the 500 that were still employed, 330 have been rescued since the beginning of this year. Despite these moves, impunity to those who’ve been caught employing the girls has meant there are worries that the number of kamalaris is increasing again. “There is not a single house here that doesn’t employ a kamalari,” says Prabha Shrestha Oli, an official of the women development committee. “Most kamalaris are found in the houses of government officials and literate people.”

There have been several committees formed with the participation of police and administration officials to crack down on the tradition. Vehicles are checked at the district’s borders, and at least 200 girls have been rescued through the checkpoints, according to Social Welfare Action Nepal (SWAN), a non-governmental organisation that rescues kamalaris.

Krishna Kumar Chaudhary, chief of SWAN, says almost all of the 4,000 rescued girls are now studying at a school supported by Friends of Needy Children, an NGO, and SWAN. “Twenty-two of the rescued girls are currently in college,” he says. The girls are also being trained in vocational subjects, while 325 girls have already married.

Krishna Kumar also says parents of the rescued girls have now started paying for the girls’ education themselves. “Though parents were really apprehensive at the beginning, educated girls from the Tharu community approached them and convinced them to change their minds.”

There are estimates that at least 3,000 girls working as bonded labourers in the five districts of western Tarai where the kamalari system is still practised. Apart from Dang, Kailali has nearly 2,000 girls working as bonded labourers. Kanchanpur, Banke, and Bardiya are the other districts where the system is still practiced.

For now though, the girls of Sonpur have found a silver lining in all the dark clouds.

source::http://www.ekantipur.com/2009/12/26/Features/Human-Bondage/305150/

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