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
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
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. …