Nepali Times
Circus slave



Ten years ago Sunita Karki, 18, (pic, front right) left her home in Itahari in the Tarai to work in an Indian circus:

"My parents were always fighting, and then one day when I was eight, Mother just left, leaving Father to cope with five children. Without her it was a real struggle for Father to support us on his income as a casual carpenter.

Looking back, I know I shouldn't have taken on the burden of responsibility – I was the youngest – but I wanted to do something to help Father. When a friend of his suggested I could work in an Indian circus, I jumped at the chance.

Father and his friend took me to meet up with a circus across the Nepali border. I was very excited, it all seemed so glamorous. Father wasn't sure, but I had my heart set on it, so he reluctantly signed the contract releasing me into the care of the circus owners.

I cried when Father left, but I was happy to be there. I thought I could have a good life with the circus.

How wrong I was.

I soon learnt that myself and the 30 other girls were effectively slaves. Kept in a guarded enclosure, we worked 19-hour days. Food was rationed and we were beaten for any mistakes we made while training or performing. Only occasionally were we given the Rs 50 (Indian) meant to be our monthly salary.

One time, when I'd been training on the trapeze and slipped, the trainer didn't even wait for me to get out of the safety harness, he just beat me, right there, with a long stick, as I was hanging in mid-air. I remember thinking, how much worse can this get?

Then one day, when I was 13, everything changed.

We were just sitting down to our morning meal when we were told to get changed into our outdoor clothes immediately. We were quickly ushered outside, and split into small groups of two or three girls. My group was taken to a field nearby and left there. We'd been told some bad men were trying to steal us from the circus and traffic us into prostitution. We spent most of the day there, with nothing to do, and nothing to eat. When evening fell, we began walking to a nearby village to look for somewhere to spend the night. As we walked, a van suddenly overtook us and stopped. Two men got out. We were so scared. We thought we were being kidnapped. We screamed for help, but we were bundled into the back of the van. Inside, we found other girls from the circus. None of us really understood what was happening.

It was only much later, when we had given our statements to the police, seen the circus bosses being questioned, and talked with our 'kidnappers' (who were in fact field staff from the Esther Benjamins Memorial Foundation), that we realised we had been rescued: our life in the circus was over.

I was overjoyed to be able to go home and see my family. I cried; we all did, it was so emotional. But things had changed so much. My brothers and sisters had all grown up and were working at the local factory. I had only just finished third grade when I joined the circus, but Esther Benjamins Memorial Foundation gave me the chance to complete my education, and provided me with food and a place to live. I'm now 18 and have just taken the SLC exam.

When I see people I was at school with who are already at university, I regret all those wasted years in the circus. But I got a second chance to do something and be somebody."

For further information on the Esther Benjamins Memorial Foundation contact Shailaja on 5560521 or email

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Love and betrayal

1. Sandhya Sharma
Thank you, Esther Benjamines Memorial Foundation for giving these girls new chance in life.

2. Daniel R
Dear Officials of Esther Benjamines Memorial Foundation how can I help to further your cause?  I am deeply touched by the article and the work you have been doing.

3. Philip Holmes

Hi Daniel,

I am the Founder of the Foundation - the late Esther Benjamins was my first wife. You can e mail me with your suggestions - - but our biggest problem at the moment is covering the care costs in Nepal. The pound has dropped in value by about 20% in the last year which means I need to raise 20% more in the UK just to stand still. And the cost of staples like rice, cooking oil and pulses have been soaring in Nepal. Look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes


4. Kishor B
Dear Mr Phillip,

Thank you sir. I salute you.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)