While her friends were off to attend their first day of school in Deukhuri, Dang, Urmila Chaudhary started working as a kamlari (girl-child indentured labourer) for a Rana family in Kathmandu. When she saw her brother on tv taking part in a protest of squatters, Urmila felt the urge to return home. After years of pleading with her owners, the family finally allowed her to meet her brother who was participating in a sit-down protest in front of Singha Darbar.
This chance meeting turned her life around. Her brother's persistent efforts freed her from bonded labour in January 2007 and now she studies in grade nine in Dang. Last year, a German woman called Natalie wrote a 350 page biography on 22-year-old Urmila, who travelled to Germany to promote the book.
Organisations involved in the kamlari movement estimate that there are around 11,800 kamlaris in Dang, Banke, Bardia, Kailali, Kanchanpur and Dailekh. Although 11,000 among them have already been freed, due to the apathy shown by the state towards their rehabilitation, the number is rising again as many former labourers return to their old masters. In December 2011, around 100 freed kamlaris gathered in Nepalgunj and announced a collective campaign for the freedom of bonded labourers.
Gita Tharu of Bardiya, who was a kamlari since she was nine, is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in education. Although she is glad to have broken free from the antiquated system, she is worried that society still has not changed its views of bonded labourer. She is committed to keep on campaigning for the welfare of kamlaris and is currently working at Room to Read in Bardiya.
18-year-old Bishnu Chaudhary from Deukhuri wants to be lawyer and fight for justice for freed kamlaris like herself. Having been a kamlari since the age of seven, Bishnu did well on her SLC scoring 70 percent. She is now studying in grade 11 in Dang in the same school as Urmila.
While in school, Bishnu took part in campaigns to free kamlaris. Her school threatened to expel her, but that did not deter her. Now the same teachers who were unimpressed with her activism are influenced by her hard work. Bishnu was awarded the International Kamlari Advocacy Award in 2010. Now, she advocates for freedom for all kamlaris through a show called Mukti Aawaj on Radio Highway in Dang.
Instead of complaining about their past struggles, the former kamlaris are currently working for the rights of those who are still trapped in bonded labour. The three woman met prime ministers Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Baburam Bhattarai and tried to convince them to put an end the horrible tradition and provide rehabilitation to ex-kamlaris. All three prime ministers broke down and shed crocodile tears, but failed to delivered on their promises.
"After Nepal was declared a republic, we went around submitting letters to the prime ministers. They all seemed supportive, but nothing has happened so far," says Gita who believes freed kamlaris, parents and the state have to work together to eradicate the problem.
Urmila, Gita and Bishnu take a keen interest in politics and regularly meet with ex-CA members like Shanta Chaudhary and Sukdaiya Chaudhary to discuss how they can get to positions of power so that they can lead their communities and bring about real changes.
"Only those politicians and representatives who were kamlaris understand our problems," says Urmila. "They inspire us to continue with our struggle."
Bonded child labourer to CA member
A costly freedom for kamalaris, KONG YEN LIN in BANKE