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No justice for Nepalese girls sold by families into slavery

KATHMANDU--Nine-year-old Manjita Chaudhary had never spent a night away from her parents when her father sold her to a Nepalese policeman for US$25.

She left her family in western Nepal and traveled some 200 kilometers to her employer's home near the Indian border.

Her harsh new life began at 4 a.m., the start of a daily routine in which she would clean her employer's house, wash dishes, cook and then go to his relatives' homes to do the same, before falling asleep just shy of midnight.

“I couldn't cope with the work, so my employer's wife would beat me with pots and pans, and threaten to sell me to another man,” Chaudhary, now 22, told AFP.

“I was so scared, I couldn't even cry in front of them, I would just cry quietly in the bathroom,” she said.

When she met her father a year later, she begged to return home, but her father, a bonded laborer, said they couldn't afford to raise her or her younger sister, whom they had also sold into domestic slavery.

Nepal's indentured “kamlari” girls — some as young as 6 — are among the Himayalan nation's most vulnerable citizens, subject to beatings and sexual violence while being kept as virtual prisoners by their employers.

Every January, when Nepal's Tharu community celebrates the Maghi festival, marking the end of winter, destitute Tharu families also sign contracts worth as little as 2,500 rupees (US$25) a year, leasing their daughters to work in strangers' homes.

The annual tradition is unusual even in a region where illegal, bonded slavery and child labor are rife and where it is common to see children working in tea-shops, homes and even on construction sites.

A century ago the Tharu, said to be descendants of the Buddha, owned their farms and lived in relative isolation in the malaria-infested Terai plains, enjoying a natural resistance to the disease that the higher castes lacked.

But when malaria was eradicated from the fertile region in 1960, the Tharu were displaced by higher-caste farmers, becoming indebted serfs in their own land.

Many, like Chaudhary's impoverished parents, resorted to selling their daughters into domestic slavery, establishing the kamlari tradition, which, although outlawed in 2006, persists across the country.

Chaudhary worked for three years as a kamlari, enduring violence and sexual harassment, before activists from the U.S.-based Nepal Youth Foundation approached her father and offered to support and educate his daughters if he ended their contracts.

At the age of 12, Chaudhary learned to read and write. Today, the business undergraduate cuts a confident figure, fashionably dressed in a trench coat and conversant in three languages.

But the childhood scars remain, compelling her to volunteer as an advocate for kamlari rights.

“I was robbed of my childhood. It was a horrible time and I will do whatever I can to end this practice, to free other girls,” she said.

Uphill Battle for Freedom

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Jujri Tharu, second left, looks back as she is rescued by activists from her workplace in Kathmandu on Dec. 13.

(AFP)

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