This is Nirmala Chaudhary. She is 22 years old and recently graduated high school with top grades, and now she wants to go to college to study management. When Nirmala was only nine years old, her home burned to the ground. Her parents could not provide for them and were forced to send her and her sister away to work for their landlord and his family, under conditions close to slavery. This is called being a Kamalari, and it is unfortunately something which is still practiced in some rural parts of Nepal.
I had my own room, but I had to sleep on the floor. And the landlady used to scold me every day.
Nirmala spent five years as a Kamalari. Nine years ago, she was rescued by SWAN and came to live her at a hostel for rescued Kamalari girls. She did not want to go with them when they first came to her landlord’s house. As opposed to many other Kamalari girls, Nirmala was allowed to go to school during the days, so she wanted to stay. She thought that if she would be somewhere else, she would have to get married very young instead, and then she would not be able to go to school at all. Of course, her landlord did not want her to leave either. He even tried to beat her with burning logs to stop her. Still, it took three visits from SWAN before Nirmala agreed to come with them, to live at the Narti Girls’ Hostel.
Today, both Nirmala and her sister live at this hostel outside of the town Lamahi, which is supported by SWAN. Now, they can go to school and they live together with their friends. Their parents have both passed away, as it the case for most of the girls staying here. Nirmala loves painting and she tells me that she is so happy to be here, because now she can be with other girls who also likes painting.
As a Kamalari, you work 24 hours a day. You have to cook food, clean and wash for an entire family without being paid. Most Kamalari girls are not allowed to go to school. Many Tharu families who send away their daughters do not know what will happen to them. Most Kamalari girls come from very poor families and selling their daughters to wealthy landlords might be a last resort for them. Usually, the families are in a lot of debt to their landlords and sending their daughter as Kamalari is the only way for them to repay it.
Nepal is a society of castes, and of very distinct socioeconomic gaps. The Tharu community is a historically extremely marginalized and poor group. They have a history of working as bonded labour for rich families with a lot of land. Women have always been particularly badly affected by this practice, not the least the girls who are being sold as Kamalari.
Because Nirmala can stay at the hostel and get her school fees paid, she is now able to go to college. She is working hard to make a better future for herself, as all the other girls do. In the village where Nirmala and the other girls live there are many different shops and small businesses run by freed Kamalari women. They received support from SWAN to start up their business and get the proper training, and now they are making a better life for themselves. SWAN is continuing to work for the Kamalari system to be eradicated, and they are many girls and women who still need rescue and rehabilitation.
Even though the Kamalari practice is illegal today, a lot of girls are still being forced to work under these terrible conditions. Far too many girls and young women are not being allowed to go to school and get an education. Many girlsare even abused or sexually assaulted by their landlords. This terrible practice must come to an end, and there are many people working hard for it here in Nepal. The work that SWAN is doing is really making a difference for many young women and girls.
By: Emma Aler