Still indenturedIn this day and age, there should be no place for bonded labour
Former Kamlaris—indentured girl labourers—have demanded that the government provide them with identity cards, in accordance with a nine-point agreement that it signed with the Kamlari System Elimination Agitation Committee three years ago when the demise of Srijana Chaudhary, a 12-year-old Kamlari burned to death in Lalitpur, triggered protests.
Nepal’s constitution prohibits all forms of forced labour. Traditional systems of bonded labour like Kamlari were outlawed in 2000. The country has also ratified a number of international conventions against debt bondage, forced labour and slavery.
Unfortunately, all these positive steps have not translated into eliminating the awful practice of slave-keeping, and the Kamlari system continues to exist in Nepal’s western plains. There are still around 300 Kamlari girls in the districts of Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur and Dang, according to Fakalu Tharu, an advocate of Kamlari rights and liberation. He argues that attempts at freeing the young women have been hobbled by the lack of a dedicated government mechanism to combat the scourge. Most of these women are Tharus and they usually work for the landlords of the region.
Efforts to rehabilitate those who have been rescued have also fallen short. Manita Tharu, a former Kamlari, rightly questioned the government’s ability to rehabilitate the former labourers when it cannot even keep a simple promise of issuing identity cards for them. According to government statistics, 12,700 Kamlaris have been rescued so far, some of whom are orphans, making them the ones requiring rehabilitation programmes the most.
This does not mean others do not need such programmes. The rescued girls come from impoverished backgrounds and many have little education or vocational skills. The absence of robust rehabilitation measures means that many of these girls are thrown into desperate situations, sometimes worse than their earlier lives under indentured labour. They are compelled to take up menial jobs; some are left with no choice but to return to their former employers. This makes escaping the trap of deprivations and hardships virtually impossible for many of the “freed” Kamlaris.
The government should accord due seriousness to the demands of these girls. Radhika Aryal, joint secretary at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, has claimed the government would start distributing identity cards to former Kamlaris soon. Although that will be a step in the right direction, it will be woefully inadequate to address the issue. The government should implement the agreement it signed three years ago in earnest. It should strictly enforce the law that makes bonded labour illegal and promptly liberate the 300 girls who are indentured even in this day and age. And it should adopt appropriate rehabilitation measures so that those who are freed from the appalling practice can have a shot at a better future. It is time to translate words into action.