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

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.
Von Dialika Krahe

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.

Facing Up to the Past

On this day in early February, 15 years after she was sold, Urmila has returned to visit the man who deprived her of her childhood. She has come to wish him a happy birthday, but she has also come to ask him for the wages she should be entitled to after more than a decade of hard work. She wants 20,000 rupees, or €200, from the man.

But the words that usually come so easily to her -- the courageous words that have made her famous in her country, the words that have made her a leader of slave girls -- are now stuck in her throat. She looks at the floor and her voice is faint, as if the man had regained ownership, as if his mere presence were enough to deprive her of her courage.

When asked why, Urmila shrugs her shoulders. "I'm afraid to offend him," she says as she leaves his house without having asked for the money. "This is an influential family," she says. "Who knows what will happen if you make these people angry."

Slavery or Starvation

There is a long tradition of repression of the Tharu, one of the lowest castes in predominantly Hindu Nepal. It is passed on from one generation to the next. The Tharu live in Terai, a fertile region near the border with India. They once owned the land but, in the 1950s, people from the mountainous regions began settling in the area, took the land from the Tharu and made them their bonded servants. Since submissive behavior is deeply ingrained among the Tharu, they did not resist.

Urmila's father was also owned by a landowner his entire life. When asked why he gave away his daughter, he says it was just the way things were done back then.

The father is squatting on the ground in front of his house. Urmila's mother, sitting next to him, is making plates for lunch out of leaves she has gathered in the forest. "We were slaves, uneducated slaves," says the father, a man with tanned skin and black sunglasses.

Their grandchildren play on the ground around them while ducks scurry around the yard. He speaks slowly and with a hoarse voice. "We had to cultivate the fields for a few sacks of rice a year," he says, "sowing, plowing and harvesting." To make extra money, the men also sent their wives and daughters to the house of the owner of the land they farmed and to the houses of other rich men. There, they were required to cook, clean and do laundry. They were also forced to do other things.

"The landowners blackmailed us," the father says. "They told us that we wouldn't get any food if we didn't give them our daughters." He says that his children -- three girls and three boys -- were hungry.

Liberated from Bad into Worse

As he tells his story, the man hardly looks at Urmila. Her parents bless her, as is customary, whenever she comes to visit them in the village. But there are hardly any embraces or smiles.

"Sometimes I'm furious with them," says Urmila, "and then I ask them: Why did you do this to me?" But she already knows the answer: "What else could we have done?" It's the same excuse that all the parents give.

Indeed, many have never heard that there is such a thing as the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children have the right to an education, to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities, and to a safe home.

In Nepal, bonded labor wasn't abolished until 2000. This meant that the Tharu were free and no longer required to work in the landowners' fields. But it also meant they lost their livelihoods. Without fields, there was no rice. Since then, daughters sold during the Maghi festival have often been the only reliable source of income for many families. If things go well, a family can earn 4,000 to 5,000 rupees per child per year. If things don't go so well, a family receives a one-time lump sum, and the girls simply disappear into a different city.

The unlucky ones are forced to work in a family for so long that they can eventually hardly function without being told what to do. The luckier ones end up in a place like the hostel in Narti.

Victims Helping Victims

More than 100 girls live at the hostel, which consists of a few simple houses with green and blue shutters. The plaster on the walls is crumbling, and it's cold at night. But there are rows of blue bunk beds inside, and each girl gets her own bed. The hostel has become a home for the girls. Urmila also lived at the hostel for a while.

It is late in the afternoon and the setting sun is creating an orange glow as more than 100 former slave girls walk around in rubber flip-flops in the hostel's dusty courtyard, humming and giggling to each other. They are wearing school uniforms and colorful shirts called kurtas. Some are wearing the skirts with red hems that identify them as Tharu girls. They line up and walk across the courtyard holding up their fists and shouting: "Stop child labor! Abolish the kamalari system!" The youngest girls are 4 years old.

The hostel is part of the Kamalari Abolition Project (KAP). Funding for the project comes from the international aid organization Plan, which gets a large percentage of its donations from Germany. Social workers with local aid organizations team up with former child slaves to try to liberate other girls from their positions of servitude. Those who are unable to return to their families are given a bed at Narti.

The aid workers enroll the girls in schools or vocational training programs as seamstresses or vendors, while others open small restaurants.

The project also includes the many teams of girls who organize liberation campaigns in the Tharu villages. They march through the streets, demonstrate in front of houses, hand out flyers, write letters and badger landowners and parents. When none of this works, they force the landowners to let the girls go by threatening them with legal action. Urmila has already used these techniques to liberate several dozen girls. She was elected president of the teams of girls in her district, which is called Dang. The former child slaves and aid workers have liberated 1,758 girls since the project began.

The Silent Slave Girl

At the moment, the women are marching down the street, prompting men on bicycles and women driving their goats through the ditches along the sides of streets to stop and gawk, bus drivers to honk their horns and children to run after them. "Look out, you landlords," the girls chant. "Anyone who keeps kamalari will be punished!" They are finally shouting the things they were barred from saying their entire lives.

In one of the first rows of the procession, there is a little girl named Rami who can hardly believe this is happening. Rami arrived at the house of liberated girls only two weeks ago. It shows in her clothes, which are still covered with the dirt from her old life, and in the lice in her dark hair. It shows in the way she looks around with darting eyes, not quite sure whether to be overjoyed or afraid.

Rami is 9 years old. She comes from a village near the small city of Lamahi, where her father, his wife and the three other children live in a single dark room. He owns a lamb on a leash, a few ducks and a few sacks of rice and lentils. His eldest daughter is a slave girl in Katmandu. He is paid about €30 a year for her work. He received even less for Rami.

Later, Rami sits on a cold rock in front of the hostel, a shy girl with almond-shaped eyes. After spending three years in an old man's house, she was freed by one of the teams of girls on Jan. 13. Rami looks up at the sky, searching her memory. "No," she says, "I don't remember how I came to his house."

Rami was six when she started working for the man. "I had to scrub the floor, wash pots and do laundry," she says. "They beat me when I didn't do my work well."

Even though her father lived only a stone's throw away, she was almost never allowed to leave the house. Rami talks about the long workdays, about how much she missed her siblings, about being afraid of doing something wrong and about sometimes feeling hungry. "The landowner let me watch television once in a while," she says. Those were her best days.

The Unrepentant Former Master

It isn't hard to find Rami's former master. His house at the entrance to the village is distinguished by the bricks, which are sturdier than the Tharu mud huts, by its size and by the fields behind it. "She didn't have to work a lot," he says. "I treated her like my granddaughter."

The 84-year-old man is sitting on a bed frame in the visitors' room in his house. He has blanket around his shoulders and a scarf around his head to ward off the cold. "I must have had 50 girls in my life," he says. His name is Prem Bahadur Dangi, and he is a Bahun, a member of the highest-ranking caste. "I own seven houses," he shouts. He is hard of hearing.

Dangi says his family has always had Tharu as bonded laborers. "How else would we have done it all? The fields, the houses?" he asks. It isn't as if he hadn't worked hard himself, he adds, holding up his calloused hand.

He then climbs a narrow staircase to his living space, which consists of a few rooms and an open kitchen with a view of his land, which is still covered by the morning mist. "Here," he says, pointing to a dimly lit room with two wooden beds in it. "This is where we had her sleep." He isn't talking about the bed, though. He's talking about a space on the floor at the foot of a bed. He and his wife sleep in the beds.

Dangi laughs and says: "We called her Lati," he says, the quiet one, because she didn't say anything. "No, I don't know her real name," he says when asked about the girl who worked for him for three years.

The girls who wanted to liberate Rami appeared at Dangi's door two weeks ago. It wasn't the first time they had come to his house. They told him what he already knew: that child labor is against the law and that Rami should be in school.

"Why should I have a bad conscience?" Dangi asks. "I help her by letting her work for me." In fact, he points out, he was doing her entire family a favor. As a parting gift, the old man gave Rami 30 rupees -- or about three cents.

'Cruel Ma'am'

Urmila has been free for four years. She lives in a room in Lamahi, a small city not far from her old village. Every day, she gets up at 5 a.m. to study and learn new vocabulary. At about 9 a.m., she puts on her school uniform, a gray pleated skirt, and straightens her tie. At 20, she is the oldest in her class, and yet she is behind in many subjects. "It makes me furious," she says, "that they always promised me they would send me to school and, in the end, they were all just lying to me."

In the late afternoon, she walks home from school and changes clothes. Then she takes the bus to Narti to visit the girls at the hostel or into the villages to spend time with the teams of girls. She helps them memorize their lines for plays and plans campaigns, demonstrations and liberation efforts with them. They keep records on girls who have disappeared, writing down their names and trying to track them down, even if they've already been taken to other cities.

Before she was freed, Urmila worked for a politician, a wealthy, influential woman, the sister of the man who had bought her. After working for the man's daughter for the first few years, she was passed on to this woman. Urmila calls here "Cruel Ma'am." The woman locked Urmila into her villa in Katmandu for years; she wasn't even allowed out on the street alone to buy milk. Her duties included cooking, cleaning and serving. "I also had to massage her," Urmila says with a grimace, "every day, in the front and in the back." It disgusted her, she says.

The politician finally let her go when she turned 16. Urmila had started asking questions like: When can I go home? When can I see my family? She was now at a marriageable age, a time when the kamalari contract is traditionally dissolved. She had also heard about the rescue project and discovered there were people who would help her.

New Laws Bring Little Change

When she returned home from Katmandu after 11 years, Urmila started going to school for the first time -- at 16. Urmila learned quickly "the ABCs" as well as "plus, minus and times." Her lips curl into a smile when she talks about it. Her teachers and the employees at the aid organization soon realized that Urmila wasn't like the other girls. She was confident and willing to talk about her feelings and her past.

Before long, Urmila was chosen to lead the teams of girls. And when 600 girls in Tharu skirts traveled to Katmandu, the capital city, it was Urmila who spoke on their behalf to the president of Nepal. "I wasn't really all that nervous," she says. "After all, I had something important to say to him."

Soon afterwards, the Nepalese government announced its plan to provide €1.2 million to fund the training and reintegration of liberated girls. Only recently, the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare approved a bill outlining the government's child-protection policies, which ban the practice of kamalari. Urmila's district, Dang, has now been declared a kamalari-free zone. The aid organization has placed a sign to let the residents in almost every village know about the changes.

Nevertheless, girls are still being sold in other districts. Though it's a criminal offence to have child slaves, the laws have no teeth, and hardly anyone is arrested or fined.

This is partly because, having only recently emerged from a decade of civil war, the country is now being run by a more or less ineffectual government. Indeed, Nepal is still in the process of transitioning from a monarchy to a republic. The Maoists, who want to integrate their former fighters into the army and the police force, are the strongest political force. Elections have failed repeatedly, and elected officials are constantly resigning. After 16 failed attempts, a new prime minister was elected, a man from the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist).

A few weeks ago, Urmila traveled to Kailali to lead a large demonstration, even though she is in the midst of her eighth-grade final exams. She has written a book, "Slave Child," in collaboration with a German author, which has just been published in Germany. It is her story, Urmila says, but it's also the story of thousands of others.

Hunting for Victims and Perpetrators

Two girls from the aid organization are standing in the noisy bus terminal in Lamahi, the town where Urmila lives, surrounded by the exhaust fumes of long-distance buses arriving at the terminal. Food vendors sell their wares from outdoor shops. The girls climb the steps into the buses and scan the seats, looking for men in the company of village girls.

After a few hours, they find what they are looking for. It's already the second time today. A young man is sitting next to a scared-looking girl. She is less than 1.50 meters tall (4' 11"), and she hides her round face behind a large green scarf.

Based on the man's clothing and his relatively light skin color, the girls immediately surmise that he is from a different region. They call up their fellow team members and take the man and the girl to their office. They ask the man what he plans to do with the girl and where is taking her. The man moves his legs nervously up and down, his arms folded in front of his chest. He says the girl was promised to him as a wife. The aid workers take the man's cell phone and call his relatives; they know nothing about a fiancée.

The man becomes evasive and suddenly claims the girl is his sister-in-law. The girl -- a 15-year-old named Rita -- has kept silent the whole time, hiding her face and holding onto her bag tightly. Then, she suddenly pulls the green scarf away from her face, looks at the man for a moment and says: "I've never seen him in my life."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan