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Millennium Goals Mock Nepal’s Slave Girls

These former slave girls face extreme poverty. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

DANG, Nepal , Apr 20 2012 (IPS) - Five years after Nepal abolished Kamalari, a system of girl slavery, thousands of young women are still awaiting promised rehabilitation and support from the new democratic republic.

Some 11,000 ‘liberated’ Kamalari girls, many of them from this impoverished southwestern district, hope to see some of the money accumulating since 2006 when the Supreme Court ordered the setting up of a fund for the welfare of the girls and their families.

In 2011 alone, the government allocated close to 2.5 million dollars towards the rehabilitation of the girls, which covered scholarships, vocational training and residential support.

But, so far, not even 70,000 dollars have been spent on the welfare of the former slave girls, according to the Mukta Kamalari Bikash Manch (Free Kamalari Development Forum), a network the girls have formed to fight for their rights.

“We know that there is a huge amount of money set aside for us, but we haven’t seen any of it being used for our rehabilitation,” says 20-year-old Urmila Chaudhary, a former slave girl who was rescued after 10 years of bondage in a wealthy Kathmandu household.

Speaking with IPS in Dang, some 200 km southwest of the capital, Urmila recalls how she was sold into slavery by her parents when she was barely six and deprived of a childhood.

In 2008, Urmila was rescued through the efforts of Friends of Nepal (FNC) and Nepal Youth Opportunity Foundation (NYOF), non-government organisations (NGOs), that jointly rescued over 11,000 girls from extreme exploitation.

Since then, she has been a leading activist against the Kamalari system, pressurising the Nepal government to fulfill its promise.

Introduced during the 1950s, mostly in the five districts of Dang, Banke, Bardiya, Kailali and Kanchanpur in Nepal’s southern plains called the Terai, the Kamalari system was the only way the Tharu ethnic group could pay back debts owed to exploitative landlords.

While Tharu adults and male children were forced to work under a parallel bonded labour system, called ‘Kamaiya’, in the landowner’s farms and household, the girls were sold off under Kamalari.

Young Tharu girls were systematically sold off through middlemen to households in the capital and other major cities on verbal contracts that provided for the payment of 50-70 dollars a year to the parents.

“Rescuing the girl children was a huge breakthrough, but sadly, the girls never received much support from the government,” says Som Paneru, executive director of NYOF.

“We have to start a nationwide protest movement soon and we will take to the streets in the capital to push the government to help former Kamalari,” says Bhagiram Chaudhary, director of Society Welfare Action Nepal (SWAN), an NGO in Dang.

The neglect of Kamalari girls squarely blots the Millennium Development Goals pertaining to education and poverty. Although Nepal boasts of progress in the two concerned MDGs, there are wide disparities among ethnic groups and between rural and urban populations.

The MDGs are eight development goals that United Nations member states are committed to achieving by 2015. The first three pertain to eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education and promoting gender equality.

Kamalari girls, due to the extreme poverty of their families, are unable to attend schools and most go hungry, according to activists.

Although enrolment rates in Nepal’s primary schools now stand at 93.7 percent, over 200,000 children from the most marginalised and hardest to reach are out-of-school, according to the MDG Progress Report 2010. NGOs say that most of those out-of-school are from among the Kamalari. “So far, I have only received seven dollars for a whole year and I don’t know what to use the money for,” says Kalpana Chaudhary, a young Kamalari who fears that she will have to drop out of school soon.

“Though they have freedom and no longer have to wake up to slavery each day, they often go to bed hungry,” Urmila said.

Activists fear that the girls will be compelled to return to working as slaves since their impoverished parents cannot afford to take care of them. NGOs like SWAN, NYOF and FNC are struggling to help them, but their funds are limited.

“At the NGO level, we are trying to help with their education and support for their families, but we have limited resources,” says Chaudhury at SWAN.

Chaudhary estimates that the cost of keeping a Kamalari girl in school is about 15 dollars a month. He and the activist Kamalari girls have often travelled to Kathmandu to visit the education ministry, but have only succeeded in spending more resources.

“The government should be taking the responsibility, and they have the funds. We cannot say when we will receive the promised money,” says Urmila. “The parents often scold their girls for coming back home instead of working to support the families.”

Some officials lay the blame on prolonged political instability. The former monarchy is still struggling with a difficult peace process that followed the end, in 2006, of a bloody civil war that lasted a whole decade.

“The price of freedom has been quite high for us, and while we enjoy so much from liberation, our struggle to lead a new life is yet to begin,” says Urmila.

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