Friday, June 15, 2012

Then and now

Courtesy: The Kathmandu Post

In the Tarai, an old tradition turns a young Tharu girl into a Kamlari. Normally from low-income families, they work as indentured labourers, spending many years away from family, and are often denied an education. In the last decade, efforts have succeeded in ending the system, offering these ex-Kamlaris a new hope. Through organisations like Friends of Needy Children (FNC) and Room to Read, many girls who have escaped the Kamlari system have been granted an opportunity to change their lives for the better. Along with free schooling from the sixth to the 12th grade, girls in Room to Read’s Girl Education Program attend Life Skill sessions taught by Social Mobilisers (SM). These SMs play a vital role in helping the girls put their pasts behind them and move towards a future where they are able to stand up for themselves and heal. An SM is of paramount importance, and when an SM has herself borne the burdens of the students, her story becomes all the more inspiring. The Post’s Shreya Thapa had the honour of meeting Gita Tharu, 22, and Josina Tharu, 21, who were gracious enough to share their stories.

Joshina Tharu and Gita Tharu (L to R)

If I am to start from the beginning, I was sent to be a Kamlari when I was nine years old. My father was a Kamaiya for my Malik’s family and my Malik was a school teacher who needed a Kamlari. I told him I would work for him if he sent me to school. I went to work for him and he sent me to school from the fourth grade until I passed my SLC.

Not all Maliks are bad and not all Maliks are good either. My Malik was okay, but his second wife was terrible. She would make me do all the work and she would complain about how much shampoo I was using because I used to have long hair. At one point all the work caused my feet to crack and bleed, but even then she was never sympathetic. It was most difficult because I didn’t have time to study. I would do all the housework and still try to make it to school—sometimes I’d go without a uniform because I really wanted to study.

Despite issues like the fact that my Malik wasn’t initially willing to pay Rs 100 for tuition for one subject, I managed to pass my SLC. After that, he said he couldn’t educate me anymore, so for one year I didn’t do anything. I didn’t have work, I didn’t have the means to study, so then he came and told me that he’d pay for my college if I worked for his family in Nepalgunj.

I went, but I didn’t get what I wanted, so I left and went back home. Around this time, FNC was rescuing girls and offering them education so I applied, but I was never selected. I found out that they didn’t want to accept me in the programme because the girls they took were around 11 or 12. I was already 17 and there was the risk I wouldn’t complete my +2 because I’d get married. My mother would plead with a didi who worked at FNC and finally they agreed. I was determined to study and do well and show them that I could do something.

While I was studying in the 12th grade, I got an internship with FNC for three months and I attended trainings on how to end the Kamlari system by campaigning and speaking with Maliks. Then I went and worked as a Field Observer for six months. Around this time, my final results came and I passed, but I didn’t have the means to study further.

Soon I was making Rs 6,000 a month and taking care of my entire household. At that time, my family wasn’t supportive at all. I had to go to Kathmandu for training and when I asked my father for Rs 1,000 for travel expenses, he got angry and told me to leave, he said he didn’t care if I lived or died and that I’d never amount to anything. I told my father that unless I got into an accident and died, I’d prove myself.

I took trainings and gained some experience and then heard there was an opening at Room to Read; in fact, they called me and asked me to interview. I thought about it, without the help of my family, what was I going to do? I got the job and have been working as an SM since November 2010.

I worked in various districts but right now I have around 40 students that I oversee—I hold the Life Skills sessions for them. I teach them how to be strong women, I visit them at school, I visit their homes, and I get to know them. Because I have this job, I am now paying for my bachelor’s degree in Nepali and have just given the first year exams. On top of that, I’m also paying for my brothers who are still in school.

Now my family support me, they tell me to do well in whatever I take up. But no one understands what it’s like unless they’ve been a Kamlari—I won’t let my uncle’s daughters go as Kamlaris. No matter how poor we are, I won’t let anyone else go because I’ve endured so much as a Kamlari myself.

Now I go to Kathmandu all the time, and through FNC, I’ve even met the Prime Minister. I’ve also been to many ministries and been a delegate for many events. I’ve been interviewed by various papers, my photos appear in the papers and when I see what I’ve said, it makes me happy to compare my life now to what it was like before. For now, I’m studying, I’ll finish my bachelor’s degree but I don’t know what’s next. When I think about my life—where I was to where I’ve come—I still don’t think I’ve been able to process it fully.

Josina Tharu, 21

Everyone in my family has been a Kamlari or a Kamaiya. We have very little land and when I got older, there wasn’t enough to feed me and keep me at home. I was sent to work as a Kamlari when I was eight, and the Maliks I worked for let my parents farm on their land. I worked for two different Maliks during the five years I was a Kamlari.

The first Malik was okay, but the second Malik lived near the Indian border and since everything was cheaper in India, I’d be sent there to buy things; I was always afraid someone would take me and sell me. The Malik wasn’t home a lot, but his wife was terrible—she yelled all the time and even beat me.

The entire time I was a Kamlari I never got to go to school. I really wanted to study but my Maliks refused to let me. So while everyone else went to school, I would have to stay home and cut grass, take care of the buffaloes, cook, and do the dishes. They wouldn’t let me go anywhere. In fact, when my sister-in-law was sick, they didn’t let me go home and I didn’t get to see her before she passed away—I didn’t even get to go for the funeral.

Later when my grandfather got sick, I knew they wouldn’t let me go see him, so one day, I ran away. One of my sisters lived close by, I went to her place and told her to either drop me off at home or let me spend the night with her. The next day I went to Guliriya and didn’t pay the bus fare. I had no money so I explained my situation to the driver and he let me on the bus without charging me anything.

As soon as I left, the Malik called my brother and yelled at him, and my family was no longer allowed to farm on their land. When I came back, my parents were angry at me, but then they eventually accepted me into the family.

At that time there weren’t any organisations or support, but I’ve found that if you are determined, anything can happen. When I came home, there was an organisation offering classes to older women, which I joined. I was 12 and younger than all the other students and the teacher thought I could do well, so she gave me extra classes. After a few months, I enrolled into the fourth grade.

At first it was difficult for me—not school, I didn’t have a hard time studying—but the fact that my old friends weren’t treating me well. They were mean and said terrible things; the neighbours used to talk and say, “This girl has lived somewhere else, she was a Kamlari, what can she do?” My family suffered because of this.

When I was in the eighth grade, I taught a class for older women for nine months, and since then I’ve always been involved. I worked with an organisation that helps Kamlaris and Kamaiyas, and because I worked hard, I was chosen to attend trainings and got opportunities that way. I continued to do more teaching until I heard there was an opening at Room to Read, where I’ve been working as an SM since 2009.

I have 60 children between the age of 12-16 who are all ex-Kamlaris. Looking at the children, I feel happy because that’s where I came from and after hard work and many struggles, I am here now and happy. When I can talk to them and when they open up to me, we all move forward together. There are so many difficulties that the girls aren’t able to talk about, but when they can open up it really helps them, and I can understand all of the pain they are holding.

I currently give Life Skill trainings to the children. I used to want to be a nurse but our circumstances didn’t make it possible, instead I just gave my first year exams for a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and I want to be a counsellor.

When I went to a counsellor, I cried for seven days because before then, no one had ever asked me how I felt. No one was here and I didn’t know who I could go to to pour everything out—I know the children must feel the same. Now, of 30 students, around 15 or 16 have sat down and opened up to me, they take some time but eventually they talk about the things that they usually try to hide—things like family problems, fights with friends, and even rape. I think I’m drawn to this because you can’t always understand situations, but if you can understand a person and help them heal—that’s a big deal.

No comments:

Post a Comment