A Little Piglet Makes a Big Difference ; in Nepal, Families Promise Not to Let Their Daughters Become Indentured Servants in Exchange for a Free Pig

Article excerpt

A parade of young Nepalese girls, about 900 strong, in blue school uniforms or long swirling shirts marched through the village square in Dang Valley earlier this year. They chanted and held banners that said: "Let's send our girls to school!" and "An end to bonded labor!"

The march was part of the Maghe Festival, a month-long event in January when families in this western valley look forward to warmer weather and family reunions.

Traditionally, Maghe has also been the time when kamlaris - girls who work as indentured servants in Nepal's larger cities - return home to visit their families.

Until a few years ago, the square was filled with fathers negotiating with city labor contractors for their daughters to work as kamlaris for the coming year. A girl's average annual wage: $50. The money would be sent home to support the family's remaining children. But this annual custom has started to change. Pressure to stop the practice of indenturing daughters has come from two sources: hundreds of former kamlaris and the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation (NYOF), a Nepali-American nonprofit group.

Since 2001, NYOF has been offering local fathers a piglet in exchange for a promise to keep their daughters at home and in school for the year. There is an economic advantage: A piglet fed on table scraps can net a family $100 at auction by year's end. Since the piglet program began, more than 1,600 girls have been spared from bonded labor, including 500 this year.

Still, an estimated 20,000 girls from the Dang and Deukhari valleys work as kamlaris. They mostly work in homes doing chores, heavy cleaning and cooking. Kamlaris have been subjected to different forms of cruelty. There have been reports of severe injuries on the job as well as sexual and physical abuse.

For generations, a way of life

Selling girls into servitude had been practiced for generations, so "no one could see anything wrong with the practice," says Olga Murray, NYOF's founder and a retired judge from Sausalito, Calif. "It's a pitifully poor region, and the fathers could hardly afford to feed the girls, much less pay for school uniforms."

Ms. Murray knew the practice was not just morally wrong, but also illegal. Nepal has laws against children under 14 working outside the home and subscribes to international laws on human trafficking. Under Murray's direction, the nonprofit group began to file lawsuits. The labor contractors were in trouble - and so were the fathers. The annual auction went underground. Quiet deals replaced a public auction, with labor contractors going house to house instead of plying their trade in the square.

Nepal is not the only developing nation where children are considered revenue sources. In countries such as India, Pakistan, and Malaysia children also are being sold as indentured servants.

In Nepal, it is easy to see why renting or selling girls appeals to fathers.

This is a dry, subsistence-farming region. Houses are made out of mud and thatched with brush from the fields. The only light inside comes from kerosene lanterns or cooking fires. The struggle to feed the family is constant.

Nepal is a traditional Hindu society, and so responsibility for all financial and family matters falls to the fathers. Many see no obvious moral or economic reason to question a generations-old practice that brings much-needed cash to feed the family. …