Nepal’s Indentured Daughters

Traditional Tharu dress, originally uploaded by linseyis.

If a smile could set one free, the girls at Lawajuni Girls Hostel would never have been enslaved. Last week, through Nepal Orphans Home, I had the chance to visit the home of 43 rescued young women, most of whom had worked as indentured servants.

Professor Peter Hess of Davidson College, North Carolina, and wife Boo, documentary filmmaker Sandra Krasa, vagabond artist Sirkka Turkki and legendary translator and guide Sushmita piled into our rented white van, driven by a boy who looked barely old enough to navigate behind the wheel. His demeanor and complexion made us all think that he had been recruited into the Maoist youth revolution, which did help as we paid off police up and down the road. Our Mao man sped our rocket down and around tight mountain curves, shortening the usual twelve hour journey to ten. In the pitch black, we pulled over to the side of the road just before a bridge. A brigade of girls, most in traditional teal, lime and red Tharu dress, stood waiting for us. They must have been there for several hours, anxious of our arrival.

“Namaste!” they called out with hands in prayer position, their braids swinging as they led us down the dirt path through a grove of trees. At the edge of the clearing, another cluster of girls gathered, applied the traditional red tikka to our foreheads and hung handmade leis around our necks. They formed an aisle way and clapped as we walked through, their smiles as bright as the fireflies who sparked around us.

The next morning, Peter, Sandra and I set up camp on a dewy bench in front of the village school. One by one, we interviewed the ochre colored girls, most of whose glassy eyes gazed at the hem of their kamis while they told us about life as a Kamlari.

Samajana had been rescued two days earlier. A volunteer at Social Welfare Action Nepal (SWAN) had seen her employer beat her during the Dasain festival. Samajana, sold at age six, was free for the first time in four years. She would no longer have to wake at 4 a.m., walk an hour to the well and back, perform household chores until nearly midnight, all the while, beaten and scolded, where she lay her straw mat on the floor of the sitting room and slept without a blanket. Like the African American slaves of our blistered past, Samajana ate after the family she served and whatever was left; sometimes that meant very little. She wiped her eyes with her green achel as she told us how her birth mother ran off with another man.

All forty-three stories are devastatingly similar: poor, broken families, a culture that doesn’t value women and operates in an entrenched caste system, all of which means girls as young as five are shipped off to landlords, hotels, even relatives to work long hours. Few, if any, are afforded an education. Nearly 60% suffer physical, mental and verbal abuse. It was apparent during our interviews that all of their spirits had, at one point, been broken.

Except Gita. The six-year-old Chaudhary girl’s hair spikes higher than Everest and her little hands clasped warm around mine from day one. She is impossible not to love. Rita, Gita’s eleven-year-old sister, is the more sophisticated version of the little firecracker. The sisters’ mother sent Rita off to work as a Kamlari when she was seven, with the idea—as most Nepali women believe—that Rita would be sent to school. Mom died three years later, leaving Rita to fend for Gita and her younger brother. Each year at the Maghe Sakrante festival, Rita renewed her Kamlari contract, sending the forty-dollar yearly fee back home to support her siblings. Each time she attempted to attend school (after rising earlier to complete all her chores) Rita’s mistress reprimanded her. School rarely fits the Kamlari lifestyle.

Earlier this year, SWAN took Rita from her boss and brought her and Gita to Lawajuni. “What would have happened to Gita if you hadn’t been rescued?” I asked, watching gap-toothed Gita’s gold nose ring glint as she played with Rita’s braids.

Rita looked at her sister, seemed to take stock of her tiny face and body, both much too small for a six-year-old. “Neither of us would have had enough food.” Even now, two weeks later, my stomach clenches when I think about those girls starving. And surely, Gita would have had to sell herself as a Kamlari, bruising the butterfly breaking out of her six-year-old cocoon.

Thankfully, several organizations are hard at work, eager to make the Tharu district a Kamlari free zone. SWAN, partially funded by Michael Hess and Nepal Orphan’s Home (NOH; the organization with whom I’m working) has rescued 43 girls since the beginning of the year, with their sights set on saving another 50 by year’s end. As always, money is an issue. Another dormitory must be built and because SWAN and NOH are adamant about the girls attending school, to keep one girl at Lawajuani or Papa’s House in Katmandu costs approximately $1,200 a year.

But the pennies are worth it. “New Hope” as Lawajuani is translated, has revived the future and spirit of forty-three beautiful Nepali girls. Bright white smiles set against walnut skin glistened as Sandra and I passed out hair clips and barrettes, as Peter and Boo taught future cricket stars Laxmi and Gayatri how to hit the wiffle ball with the oversized red plastic bat, as pictures from Jesse, a previous volunteer, were passed out. And generous Jesse—a balding twenty-something biker with tats who spent several weeks with these girls—sent enough money to provide a hearty picnic for everyone at the lake.

The afternoon was filled with chicken and curry, potatoes and juice, biscuits, dancing, singing, henna painting and nail polish, a boat ride across the lake. After the girls plucked the white lotus flowers by leaning over the edge of the boat, they came ashore and peeled back each ivory petal, revealing brilliant yellow deeply rooted stamens. And since each girl had been rescued, she peeled the same layers away from herself and her sisters. Slowly but surely, they would all giggle as giddy as Gita.

For more information on Kamlaris, watch this documentary produced by Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation.
If you’d like to contribute to help rescue a Kamlari girl or to continue to fund the young women who are already at Lawajuini or Papa’s House, click here. All proceeds directly benefit the Kamlari girls.

Stock market got your bank account low? No worries—you can still help! Instead of using Google as your search engine, first try www.goodsearch.com. In the second field, you can request the proceeds of your web search to go to your charity of choice; type in “Nepal Orphans Home” and you’ll be well on your way to helping these worthy girls.


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