Friday, January 21, 2011

The trap of servitude

By Bhawana Upadhyay

Sita Chaudhary, 12, helplessly watched as her uncle contracted her into an additional year of indentured servitude. She had returned to her village in Dang district of Western Nepal to visit her aunt and cousins during Maaghi, the Tharu community’s winter festival commonly observed across Nepal as Maaghe Sangkranti.

She didn’t have much to offer in her reaction; tears didn’t even well up in her eyes. An orphan since she could remember, she had learned to accept this happening as an annual ritual.

Though there is no reliable data on how many young Tharu girls are trapped in the Kamlari system, the most commonly quoted estimate is 25,000. The Kamlari system is a practice common among indigenous Tharu communities in Western Nepal wherein the family sells off their daughters—as young as six-years-old—through middlemen as bonded servants to local landlords or wealthy families in urban centres. During Maghe Sankranti (which usually falls in mid-January), Kamlaris are permitted by their landlords to visit their family to celebrate the annual winter festival. This is also the time when local middlemen are most active in villages to ‘recruit’ new Kamlari girls as well as ‘renew’ the contracts of existing ones.

As noted by many studies, poverty is the primary reason for the continuation of the Kamlari tradition. Often, indebted parents sign their daughters into servitude as the only way to settle their debts. One father who sent his children to work as a Kamlari said, “We are poor and only have a small piece of land for subsistence agriculture. It is very difficult to feed a family of seven. If the girls go to work elsewhere, we have less people to feed.”

Ignorance, narrow perspectives and regular payments to parents—though often as meagre as Rs. 5,000-6,000 a year—often result in these girls remaining Kamlaris for years with no way out of the illicit practice. The pity is that their own parents and extended family members, particularly men, fail to recognise the exploitation and abuse that these innocent girls are subjected to during their period of servitude.

In December 2008, the National Human Rights Commission urged the government to take immediate action to bring the Kamlari practice to a complete halt, citing severe human and child rights violations. But eradication of the practice has not been easy. Members of the Freed Kamaiya Society say that the system is entrenched in Tharu culture, with even some wealthy Tharu families sending their daughters into domestic servitude. This practice has been happening since indigenous Tharus lost land ownership to hill-dwellers migrating to Dang and nearby
districts in the late 1940s. This loss of land dramatically changed the existing power dynamics and most Tharu people suddenly found themselves tilling the patches they previously owned on a share-cropping basis as bonded labourers—commonly known as Kamaiyas.

In earlier days, under the Kamlari system young Tharu girls were sent to work as domestic servants in landlords’ houses in nearby villages. As soon as middlemen entered the picture, girls were increasingly brought from far-away cities, thereby enhancing their vulnerability to other forms of crime including cross-border human trafficking.

Thanks to advocacy and campaign programmes supported by various I/NGOs, civil society in Dang district achieved a notable milestone towards ending the Kamlari practice and supporting former Kamlaris. As of Jan. 14, 2009, Dang has been declared a Kamlari-free district by the District Child Welfare Committee. But unfortunately, there has not been a notable change in the local practice. I/NGO efforts need to be urgently augmented with projects that have practical behaviour-changing components.

The Supreme Court declared the Kamlari practice illegal in 2006. It was half a decade after the Supreme Court decree that corresponding regulations were introduced to outlaw the Kamlari practice. As a part of the Supreme Court decision, the government also set up a Kamlari rehabilitation fund to look after the education and welfare of former Kamlaris. This initiative has not, however, effectively rehabilitated Kamlaris to produce the desired result of ultimately eliminating the Kamlari system. With deep cultural and economic roots, this gap again substantiates the need for interventions directed at bringing about changes in community behaviour.

On May 16, 2010, there was a rally jointly organised by the Freed Kamaiya Women Development Forum (FKWDF) and the Kamaiya Women Upliftment Society (KWUS) in Dhangadhi demanding free education for ex-Kamlaris and action against those who push them into forced labour.

Later, an appeal was also submitted to the prime minister through the District Administration Office with a 12-point list including demands for rehabilitation facilities and cultivable land for the families of freed victims.

These promising pressure tactics need to be continued with greater involvement of local community-based organisations and informal groups to encourage social mobilisation. However, as the issue involves prevention, protection and prosecution elements, coordination between and support from regulatory, enforcement and other line agencies are crucial. For instance, as effective post-rescue rehabilitation and social integration are critical to ensure that former Kamlaris don’t fall back under the control of exploitative landlords, there is a need to look beyond current I/NGOs initiatives.

Courtesy: The Kathmandu Post

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