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Nepal's Lost Daughters: Victims of Child Slavery Learning to Fight Back

By Dialika Krahe

Like many Nepalese girls from poor families, Urmila Chaudhary was sold into bonded labor until she liberated herself. Now 20, she works with a team of former victims, traveling throughout Nepal to free other girls from the clutches of their unrepentant masters.

The man who once bought Urmila squats on the threshold between her past and her new life, picking a piece of chewing tobacco from his teeth. He spits a black stream of saliva into a bucket next to him on the living-room floor. Urmila Chaudhary, who hasn't been his property for the last four years, kneels on the carpet at his feet and hands him a tray holding a cup of sweetened tea.

She ought to hate, curse and berate this man. But, instead, she bows to him and calls him "father."

Urmila was taken from her family and enslaved as a young child. Now 20, she has long, black hair and a gentle, melodious laugh. She wears blue smiley-face earrings and a colorful skirt with a red stripe along the hem, the traditional attire of women from Nepal's Tharu people. Her clothing says a lot about the story of Urmila and this man -- and about the thousands of other young girls who are sold every year as soon as they are big enough to look over the edge of a table and yet still young enough to grow into their new roles as servants.

Her former owner wears his black hair carefully parted, a bomber jacket and tracksuit pants. He was astonished when he saw Urmila on television and in a newspaper photo that depicted her standing next to the country's president.

"I thought you would have forgotten us," he says.

"No," Urmila replies.

Sold for 50 Euros

Urmila says she was five years old when this man, an attorney from a respected family, came to her village of Manpur, on the Rapti River, and made an offer that ended her childhood.

It was a day in January, just after the Maghi festival had begun, one of those cold days of the year when the Tharu celebrate the New Year. It's also the time of the year when they sell their daughters.

"I can still see him coming toward us," says Urmila. He was a man from the city, wearing sunglasses and a suit. "I had never seen such clothing," she says. She was sitting at the fire pit in front of the tiny mud-and-dung house where her family of 11 lived. Pumpkins grew on the straw roof, and pigs lay in shallow pits in the ground. Urmila was sitting there with her mother and brother as the man approached.

"I knew it was my turn," Urmila says. Her sisters and her sisters-in-law had all worked as kamalari, or slave girls. One sister had told her about the beatings she endured at the hands of the landowner who purchased her and the kitchen scraps she was fed. "I begged my mother not to send me away," Urmila recounts. Her mother said that she had no say in the matter.

Instead, the man spoke with her older brother because he was the one who supported the family. The man offered the brother money -- 4,000 rupees, or about €50 ($70) -- for his little sister Urmila. The family owed money to the landowner whose fields they farmed, there wasn't enough food and the children wore shoes made of bean pods tied to their feet with pieces of rope. Four thousand rupees. It was a lot of money. Urmila's brother agreed to the deal.

Millions of Child Slaves across the World

In Nepali, the word kamalari means "hardworking woman." But these aren't women being sold off and forced to work; they're children between the ages of five and 15, thin-armed girls forced to work 14-16 hours a day in the households of families, fully at the mercy of their owners and exposed to their moods and their beatings. About one in 10 of the girls is sexually abused.

Aid organizations estimate that 10,000 girls work as kamalari in Nepal. As long ago as 1956, the United Nations declared that forms of child labor and bonded labor were slavery and should therefore be outlawed. However, although human trafficking has been officially illegal in all countries for a long time, it still exists to a significant degree in about 70 countries. Indeed, roughly 27 million people across the world are victims of modern slavery -- living in debt bondage, as forced prostitutes and as bonded laborers. Between 40 percent and 50 percent of these are children, and many are in Asia.

In many poor countries, there is a tradition of using child slaves in private households. Children are practical because their personalities are flexible and their characters are as malleable as clay on the sculptor's wheel. Child slaves go by many names: the kamalari in Nepal, the restavék in Haiti and the abd in Mauritania.

The principle is almost the same everywhere. On the one side are the parents, who are unable to earn enough money to feed their children. On the other are the more affluent members of society, the landowners and businesspeople. In many cases, the people who buy children and raise them to suit their purposes are teachers, lawyers and politicians. The child slaves are rewarded with affection or extra meals, while punishments consist of being denied food, beaten and berated. In the end, they have no choice but to do their work without complaint.

Bought as a Present

Urmila was in the same position as most of the others. "Down there," she says, pointing to a door on the ground floor of the yellow townhouse, "down there in the room next to the kitchen is where I spent the first night." Her brother had taken her on the bus to Ghorahi, a noisy city in southwestern Nepal. With its cars and bicycle rickshaws, the place was completely unlike her village of Manpur. Urmila lay on a mat on the floor next to another girl the house's owner had bought. It was cold. A wedding was being held in the house. The son of the landowner had found a wife, and there were many relatives among the guests, including the owner's daughter. She lived in Katmandu, and Urmila had been bought as a present for her.

"She's so thin and small," the daughter said when she first saw Urmila. "How is she supposed to work properly?" From then on, Urmila was instructed to address the daughter as "maharani," or mistress, and her children as "prince" and "princess." A few days later, the daughter took Urmila with her to an apartment in Katmandu, where she was required to work for 12 people. It would be four years before she saw her parents again, and 11 before she was free.

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