When Shardha Chaudhary was 11 years old, her impoverished parents rented her out for US$17 a year. For the next two years, she endured physical and mental abuse, one of thousands of girls forced to work in slave-like conditions as indentured labourers in Nepal.
Shardha was rescued five months ago in Kathmandu by local NGO Friends of Nepal (FNC) and is slowly recovering.
“Shardha was so malnourished, weighing barely 13kg because of neglect and abuse. She survived extreme inhumanity at the hands of her owners in Kathmandu,” said Manoj Silwal, programme director of the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation (NYOF), an international organization working with FNC.
The practice of selling daughters for indentured servitude - “kamlari” - is done through a middleman, traditionally in western Nepal’s indigenous Tharu community.
Thousands of kamlari girls around Nepal have suffered starvation, rape and other forms of sexual abuse, being burnt and stabbed by their “owners”, according to investigations by NYOF.
Raju Dhamala, executive director of FNC, told IRIN that Nepal’s kamlari girls are “safer now as most of them have been rescued, and the parents who were unaware of such abuses are no longer practising this tradition”.
Since 2000, the two NGOs have rescued close to 10,000 kamlaris, though estimates suggest there are 20,000 around the country. Almost 7,000 were younger than 14, and some as young as eight, all working for middle-class and elite families in urban areas. This year, 3,595 girls have been rescued, and the organizations have sent warnings to the households holding the remaining 1,000 kamlaris.
Both FNC and NYOF claim the government fails to support the rehabilitation of rescued girls although government officials say funding has been made available and it is taking steps to be more actively involved in the process.
So far, $1.5 million has been allocated for educational support, but it is barely enough to meet the needs of the rescued girls.
“The government has to address the root problems and educational support covers only the tip of the iceberg,” said Dhamala.
With many Nepalese families landless, jobless and hungry, opportunities to make a little extra cash are few and far between, while almost one-third of the country’s 28 million people live below the poverty line on less than $1 a day.
Dhamala said that only the Ministry of Education was involved in the rehabilitation, and the government should mobilize other ministries and come up with a far-reaching economic programme.
“Unless the families get more humanitarian aid and poverty-alleviation support, the risks of the kamlari system resuming are always there,” said Silwal from NYOF.
The government gives reunited families $25 a year towards the education of rescued kamlari girls, but this barely covers school expenses, according to NYOF.
“For the time being, they are not sending off their daughters to work as kamlaris due to social pressure, but for how long they will do that is our concern as most have lost their financial support and were dependent on their children to meet even their basic needs,” said Silwal.
Shanta Chaudhary, 28, a lawmaker who was herself a kamlari at 10, urged the government “to keep its promises to provide humanitarian assistance as part of their rehabilitation, and take measures to protect them from further risks”.
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