23-29 August 2013 #670

She has a dream

Shanta Chaudhari joins other women who have written about their struggles

Kamlari Dekhi Sabhasad Samma (Nepali)

by Shanta Chaudhary, Sangri-La, 2013

Rs 250

Although slavery was outlawed nearly a century ago and the Kamaiya culture was made a criminal offence in 2009, the practice is so ingrained in the Tarai that it is still accepted. In most cases the parents of the girls themselves sell or rent their daughters to landlords in auctions to reduce the burden of having to take care of them.

Shanta Chaudhary was one of them. At the age of eight, she was leased for Rs 7,000 a year by her parents who had nine other children and sent off to work in a family in Dang. She was homesick, had to work 19 hours a day, and live in the cowshed. When she made mistakes Shanta was rudely reprimanded by the landlord’s wife and sometimes beaten.

Shanta yearned to wear a clean uniform and go to school like the children in the family she worked for, she wanted to eat rice like them. During the rainy season, when she got sick, there was no one to take care of her and she missed her mother terribly. There were also decent households where she was treated well and she used to go to watch movies with the landlord’s daughter.

Most kamlari girls face rape and abuse, so when Shanta became a teenager and had to fend off aggressive, unwanted advances from men, she got married to a friend for companionship and to keep herself safe. Her first son is handicapped, her second baby died of undernourishment, and when she tried to break free village goons set fire to her hut.

Unlike other kamlari girls, Shanta decided to do something about the injustice and became an activist. She joined the UML party and became a nominated member of the Constituent Assembly so she could realise her dream of a Nepal free of the exploitation, discrimination, and abusethousands of other women like her had to suffer.

After the CA was dissolved, Shanta decided to write about her life. And what a life. Told in simple, heartfelt sentences, you have to fight back tears as you learn of the tragic injustice that little girls like Shanta had to suffer.

But there is little bitterness or resentment here, only a determination to set things right. Between the lines, you get a glimpse of the fierce fortitude of this remarkable woman.

Shanta Chaudhary says she was inspired to write her book after reading Jhamak Ghimire’s masterpiece Jeevan Kanda Ki Phool. Struck by polio and confined to a wheelchair, Ghimire wrote her book with her toes and become an inspiration for many Nepali women.

But even after finding her place in the national legislature, nominated to the powerful parliamentary committee on natural resources, and given a chance to contribute to the new constitution, Shanta was appalled by the way fellow MPs looked down on her for being a Tharu. “Even there, they made fun of my clothes, my accent, and the fact that I was illiterate,” she says, eyes brimming with tears.

Shanta, now 34, taught herself to read and write while in the CA. And after the assembly was dissolved started writing her book because she feared that despite the laws, indentured servitude of girls from her community would continue. Shanta’s biggest regret is that the new constitution wasn’t passed last year and the CA was dissolved, but she is happy she could take the plight of her people to the highest law-making body in the land.

Shanta Chaudhary’s book, Kamlari Dekhi Sabhasad Samma (From Kamlari To CA Member) adds to a growing corpus of books by inpsiring Nepali women, including Jhamak Ghimire, Radha Poudel, and Tara Rai.

Samman Humagain