“It feels surreal,” recalls 32-year-old Shanti (not her real name), as she reflects on the difficulties she has endured. “I was a kamalari and the hardships that I went through still haunts me. It was brutal, I was 6 years old when my father forced me to go work for one of the landlords that he owed money to.”
Shanti was a victim of Nepal’s age-old kamalari bonded labour system, where young girls are forced to work for landowners to repay a family loan. “My father had agreed with the landowner that I would work for them and pay off his debt. I did not have a choice.”
For the next seven years, Shanti went through manifold challenges as a bonded labourer, including being subjected to sexual harassment, physical exploitation and starvation at the hands of those she was forced to work for.
“I had to look after the landowners’ son who was much older than me. He used to beat me up, kick me in my private parts and when I complained, his mother used to deprive me of food. It was the fear of starvation that kept me quiet. There were days when I used to cry myself to sleep,” a tearful Shanti recalled.
Where will I go now? Where would I stay? I still remember my mother’s face when she said that my family was poor, and they couldn’t take me in. I felt devastated, how could anyone be so cruel?
It was on the radio that Shanti first heard that the government of Nepal had abolished the kamalari system, but the uncertainty of the future haunted her. “Where will I go now? Where would I stay? I still remember my mother’s face when she said that my family was poor, and they couldn’t take me in. I felt devastated, how could anyone be so cruel?”
With the help of a neighbour, Shanti moved to India for work and found a job on a construction site. It was there that Shanti met her future husband who too was a former bonded labourer. Several months into their relationship, the couple decided to move back to Nepal together and live in a rehabilitation facility set up by the government for former bonded labourers.
“But happiness was short-lived,” explains Shanti. Her husband turned out to be an alcoholic and started verbally, physically and mentally abusing her, shattering her self-esteem. “There were moments when I wanted to commit suicide. I didn’t have anywhere to go, I didn’t know who to go to for help”, Shanti recounted.
It was during this time of hardship that Shanti came across a member of Christian Aid’s local partner Kamaiya Pratha Unmulan Samaj (KPUS) who campaign for the rights of former bonded labourers and work within government-run camps and beyond to help them begin a new life.
In Nepal, a sense of stigma is attached to former bonded labourers by wider society because of their past and they are often met with discrimination as a result. KPUS invited Shanti to join one of their ReFLECT classes, safe spaces where former bonded labourers can come to meet and talk with each other and discuss their issues, challenges, and a way forward. With sexual and physical violence a recurring theme for women, they were also provided with information on the laws in place to protect people, and the help they could receive.
“I met former kamalaris like me, who spoke about their life, the trauma that they faced and the violence that they experienced. For the first time in my life, I felt I was a part of something”, Shanti said.
Representatives from ReFLECT challenged Shanti’s husband about his behaviour emphasising that what he was doing was not only wrong, but also a criminal offence. After this intervention, Shanti noted a change in her husband’s behaviour and even though he still drinks, the abuse from her husband has stopped.
But change didn’t stop there. To support her in building a new life, Christian Aid provided Shanti with a seed grant and trained her to become a mushroom farmer.
“The government freed us, but then they didn’t tell us how to break the chains”, said Shanti. “If the mushroom farming goes well, then I will live an independent life.”
Author: Ayush Joshi, Communications Advisor at Christian Aid in Nepal