Backward Society Education (BASE) and Child Labor in Nepal

Backward Society Education (BASE) represents the Tharu, an indigenous minority in western Nepal that accounts for 13% of the population. BASE uses education to fight discrimination, social marginalization and child and bonded labor – the main focus of these pages and of AP’s work with BASE.

BASE was established in 1985 as a response to bonded labor among the Tharu. Bonded labor in this region dates from the 1950s, when a successful malaria-eradication program opened up Tharu land to settlers. Many Tharu families were put at a severe disadvantage by their lack of education and tricked into selling their land. They then

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had no option but to work for landowners to pay off their debts. This form of bonded labor is known in Nepali as kamaiya, and it affected thousands of families. Many parents worked on the landlord’s field as share-croppers, while their daughters were sent to work in the homes as domestic servants (kamlaharis).

Mover and Shaker: Dilli Chaudhary was inspired to set up BASE in 1985 by his own experience – both of his parents were bonded laborers (kamaiya). Dilli led the mass movement to abolish the kamaiya system in 2000. He was elected to parliament in 2013.

BASE was established in January 1985, during the Tharu New Year, when 34 young Tharu activists opened a literacy club (the “Charpate Club”) in the village of Dumrigaon in Dang District. They were led by Dilli Bahadur Chaudhary, 17, whose parents had been bonded laborers. Dilli is shown left. The group members undertook community projects (vegetable farming, masonry, cultural shows) and raised 700 rupees ($10) which they used to buy books, pencils, slates and chalk for literacy classes. Many of the classes were held under the light of kerosene lamps

In 1991, the club was renamed BASE and registered as an organization. As its profile grew, BASE made enemies among the landowning class on the right and the Maoist rebels on the left. Dilli Chaudhary was twice imprisoned under the Public Security Act. BASE was threatened by the Maoist guerrillas

But BASE refused to be intimidated and organized a mass campaign against kamaiya, which culminated in the practice being banned on July 17, 2000. The ban became legal in 2002 with passage of the 2002 Bonded Labour (Prohibition) Act, and 32,509 families were freed. While this represented a major achievement, most of these kamaiya families received no support and went straight from slavery into poverty. Others received poor land in remote areas without water, electricity, and other basic services. This gave BASE a new target for its advocacy. It continues to advocate for the freed bonded laborers to this day.

Painting the problem of child labor: These Tharu kamlaharis were rescued from domestic servitude by Nepali advocates. They were photographed by Peace Fellow Rachel Palmer while painting squares for the Nepali Love Blankets.

Today BASE is one of the largest grassroots movements in Nepal, with over 120,000 paying members and an annual budget of over a million dollars. In 2012, BASE managed 13 programs with a staff of 178, supported by aid agencies. In recent years, BASE has focused increasingly on the challenge of child labor and introduced he model of Child Friendly Villages to Nepal.

AP was introduced to BASE in 2008, during one of Dilli Chaudhary’s visits to Washington. We sent our first Peace Fellow, Kan Yan, to BASE in 2009. Six more Fellows have followed since. Several Fellows worked with children to produce the Nepali Love Blankets (advocacy quilts), which are profiled on these pages. The two girls pictured on the right were among the many children who contributed painted squares. They were rescued from domestic servitude by Nepali advocates and photographed by Peace Fellow Rachel Palmer in 2012 at a shelter for freed workers. Kamlaharis, as they are known, start work as young as 5 and have long been a concern for BASE. The problem is explored in depth in the pages that follow.

The Challenge of Child Labor in Nepal

Child labor was unchallenged in Nepal until 1996, when the government agreed to work with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and set fourteen as the minimum age for work. This was enforced through the 1999 Child Labor Prohibition and Regulation Act. The law made it illegal to employ children below the age of 14 although it did permit light (non-hazardous) work between the ages of 14 to 16. Between 1999 and 2008 the number of children working in Nepal fell from 2.6 million in 1999 to 1.7 million – an achievement that owed much to international pressure and successful advocacy by Nepali civil society.

Much, however, remains to be done. As of 2012, over a million children – 7% of the work force – still worked in dangerous conditions and against their will.

Of the different forms of child labor, the employment of Tharu girls as domestic servants (kamlaharis) has received the most publicity. Kamlaharis are signed away by their parents to landlords or “masters” at an early age, and forced to work long hours far from home. They are also vulnerable to abuse. Nepalis were shocked when a young kamlahari, Srijana Chaudhary, was murdered (apparently by the brother of her employer) in Kathmandu in early 2013. Yet this was only one of several kamlahari deaths in 2013.


Archana Malla (left) tries to explain why 8 year-old Ritu Chaudhary (right) is working in her home in Nepalgunj. Like many elite Nepalis who employ children, Ms Malla lives a life of privilege. When this photo was taken, her husband had just returned from Saudi Arabia. Her brother is a senior policeman. She insists that Ritu is doing “light activities” in the house and that she is doing the girl a favor because Ritu’s mother has abandoned the family. But experts from BASE see Ritu as a classic kamlahari who is being prepared for a life of domestic servitude. Ms Malla is clearly breaking the law, which forbids the employment of children under 14.

The Nepali authorities added fuel to the fire by using force to disperse a protest by advocates who had themselves escaped from domestic servitude. This scandalous case was exposed in an AP bulletin  and explored by Peace Fellow Emily MacDonald in her blogs.

Brick Hell: In 2012, AP and BASE visited the Shiva brick factory in Dang district, owned by Mohan Gharbi, and found 11 year-old boys and girls working 12 hours a day hauling bricks. The children were paid 200 rupees ($2.50) for every 100 bricks. They were under contract for six months, and only given one day a week to rest. Whole families were working in groups, after fleeing poverty in the Hill areas.

Overall the absolute number of working kamlaharis appears to be falling. But the same is not true of children in other less scrutinized sectors such as car repair, the garment industry, restaurants, hotels and brick-making (photo). Little accurate data is available about these and other emerging trends, and this makes it impossible to estimate the number of child workers with any confidence. Indeed, the lack of data adds greatly to the challenge of combating child labor.

It is clear that many families are driven to put their children to work by poverty, and all Peace Fellows who have served at BASE have drawn a sharp distinction between the desperation of such parents and exploitation by owners and landlords. Nonetheless, they also feel that parents cannot completely escape blame for creating a tolerant attitude that opens the way to abuse.

Putting a child in school does not necessarily end child labor. Indeed, education can even be part of the problem, because it imposes costs on poor families. Often, employers will cynically exploit school to disguise their criminal activity. They send their child workers in school with the books they bought for their own children, to keep down costs. They then put the children to work after they return from school as well as early in the morning.

Child labor in Nepal is fueled by a deep sense of impunity among the elite of Nepal who feel that they have little to fear from the law. BASE and other NGOs have rescued children from politicians, lawyers, and even officials in development agencies that work for children. AP has also caught several employers in the presence of their child workers. They tried to argue that they were doing the girls’ families a favor.

Are parents responsible for child labor? This woman lives with her sick husband in a one-room hut and could not resist when a landlord offered to pay 3,000 rupees a month to employ her daughter, Kalawati. BASE argues that however great the pressure from poverty, parents should see child labor for a crime and seek alternatives.

This sense of being above the law is heightened by the weakness of the law itself. The Bonded Labour Act, which was enacted in 2002 after BASE’s successful campaign, abolished bonded labor but contains many loopholes. Most damaging, complaints are filed with the Chief District Officer, the chief administrator, who has the authority to reach a settlement. This opens the Officers up to political pressure, particularly if the employer is powerful and well-connected, and they usually hand down a light fine. Plaintiffs can refer cases to the law courts, but never do. Under the 1999 Child Labor Prohibition and Regulation Act, violators are liable for up to 6 months in prison and up to 50,000 rupees fine. But between 2003 and 2012 only 11 cases went to the district courts in the Tharu districts and none has resulted in a prosecution.

With the state powerless to enforce its laws, the task of monitoring has fallen to civil society organizations like BASE. Such community-based monitoring is vital, but it will have less impact until it is backed up by strong laws and a willingness to prosecute.

BASE Takes Action

BASE takes the view that school must be at the heart of any successful advocacy on child labor. This has been an article of faith at BASE since the successful campaign to end kamaiya (bonded labor) in 2000. Most of the freed laborers had nowhere to go and moved into tents at the roadside, onto inhospitable land, or even in forests. Their children had no access to education.

BASE began to advocate for education, first for the freed kamaiya and then for all illiterate children in Nepal. In 2009, BASE organized the Nepal Education March. Over 200,000 people marched the length of Nepal to demand the inclusion of universal free education in Nepal’s new constitution. BASE has improved 27 schools in the 5 Tharu districts and developed several model schools which are being adopted by the government.

Child Friendly Villages

Child-friendly villages are at the heart of BASE’s campaign against child labor. Through them, BASE helps children to understand their rights; invests in schools; provides children with an alternative to work; rescues children from abusive and violent work; and gives aid agencies a partner at the village level.

Raid and Rescue

As a last resort, BASE will snatch children away from work. Sabita Chaudhary and Sima Chaudhary, seen here with 2013 Peace Fellows Emily MacDonald and Sunita Basnet, were rescued by BASE after their landlords refused to give them up. Sima had been sent to work with a relative at the age of 4 after her father died and passed on to a prominent lawyer in Nepalgunj who beat her for not keeping his shoes clean. When BASE finally rescued Sima in 2009 her hands and feet were bloodied. AP’s first Peace Fellow at BASE, Kan Yan, used the case in a 2010 video The Price of Childhood, which has been shown at film festivals. AP raises funds for the education of Sabita and Sima. Click to Donate.

Child-friendly villages were developed in northern India in 2001 by Bachpan Bachpao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), a close ally of BASE. It was then adapted to Nepal by BASE in 2007. By 2010 BASE had launched 244 child-friendly villages in the five main Tharu districts.

Walking away from Slavery: Urmila, Sita and Gita Chaudhary worked for three rich brothers from the Regmi family until they plucked up courage to walk off the job and return home. Their parents were also employed as indentured farm laborers by the Regmi brothers, and allowed to keep half of what they produced. BASE helps poor families like the Chaudharys to find the resources and confidence to reject child labor.

In declaring itself to be a “child-friendly village,” a community commits to protecting its children and rejecting child labor. The village will also set up a child club, where children can develop their own ideas, meet regularly, plan activities and elect office-holders. Child-friendly villages also set up committees where parents can meet with village leaders to develop education policy. The number of children going to school in child-friendly villages in Nepal rose from 12,111 in 2010 to 22,269 in 2012, although the figure has leveled off since.

AP Peace Fellows and staff have made many visits to Child-friendly villages and written about them in blogs and research papers. Adrienne Henck produced a study after serving as a Fellow at BASE. She then based her PHD thesis on the study, which is used and valued by BASE to this day.

Raid and Rescue

Once children are found to be working, they must be rescued. Between 2000 and 2010, Nepali NGOs rescued around 12,000 working children in the Tharu areas, almost all of them kamlaharis. BASE itself has rescued around 1,500. A rescue begins when BASE, or another NGO, will hear about a working child from a family, a social worker, or a child club. BASE field officers will then visit the employer’s home to verify the information. Once they have confirmation they will ask that the child be released into the custody of a social worker. If the employer refuses, as usually happens, BASE will appeal to local government and even the police and again visit the employer. If all else fails, BASE may try and snatch the child from the home of the master, as happened in the cases of Sima and Sabita Chaudhary, pictured at the top of this page.

The other way to free children is through a direct appeal to the parents. If persuaded, they will simply keep the child home when he or she returns on a visit. It may also be that the children attend a meeting of the local child club during their visit, in which case others members of the club will press him or her to break with the master.

Child-friendly encouragement: BASE uses child-friendly villages and clubs to entice children like Deepak Chaudhary out of labor – and keep them out.

As with the successful campaign to end kamaiya, BASE has found that rescuing children from work is only the beginning. Children will slip back into employment if they and their families are not given an incentive to remain in school or learn a profession. BASE uses funds from donors to pay for books and uniforms for primary school students, and tuition and exams for secondary school. BASE also pays for older children to received skills training. Of the 574 girls freed under one BASE project (the Kamlahari Abolition Project), 85 children were trained as apprentices in poultry and small farming, cosmetics, and shop-keeping.

Child-friendly villages, and child clubs, also play an important role by identifying children in need and and making sure they complete the training. After persuading Deepak Chaudhary, pictured left, to stay home and go to school instead of returning to work, the Shanti Citizenship Club was dismayed when he dropped out of school. But instead of giving up, the club lobbied BASE to find 5,000 rupees to put Deepak through carpentry training.

Child-centered Development

Once a village declares itself to be child-friendly, it opens the way for other interventions to reduce the pressure on poor families. Many villages have also used their designation as “child-friendly” to attract aid projects such as road maintenance and sanitation improvement, which will also help children to have happier, healthier lives.

Under this broad development framework, BASE implements a significant program for microcredit. Working with a revolving fund of interest-free capital, donated by from the London-based Shivia, BASE makes loans to groups of village women at 12%. AP visited one village in 2012 where the club had not met for weeks. The office-holders were actually living in another village.

Working together, or in a team, the group’s members will then invest the loan and repay the money with a 1% interest charge every month (see box right). BASE also offers a savings scheme which allows its members to save up to 10 rupees a month through BASE.

For all its promise, BASE would also admit that the child-friendly model has its flaws. Many of the village clubs and committees have succumbed to bureaucracy, poor leaders. 

Credit Where Credit is Due

The Matera women’s club, in the village of Duruwa, had borrowed 200,000 rupees under BASE’s microcredit scheme when AP visited in April 2012. 16 of the club’s 40 members had taken out loans, and 20 were receiving training in sewing through the club. Goats and pigs appeared to be the best investments, but almost all of the women handed over their profits to their fathers in law, because their husbands were away working in the Gulf. Several borrowed from their friends for monthly repayments while their animals were growing.

In one child-friendly village, an AP delegation met one teacher who had “given” a girl to his brother as a domestic worker. The teacher’s power in the village was apparently stronger than the village’s commitment to being “child-friendly.” Furthermore, BASE lacks the manpower to follow up such cases. This particular village came as a complete shock to our guides from BASE.

Undaunted: Urmila Chaudhary, left, established the Freed Kamlari Development Forum (FKDF) after she escaped from domestic servitude. In June 2013 her group protested in Kathmandu against the murder of Srijana Chaudhary, 12, by the brother of Srijana’s landlord. Several demonstrators were injured by police. They included Urmila, who was interviewed in hospital by Peace Fellow Emily MacDonald. Click on the photo below for a video of the demonstration.

This suggests that child-friendly villages will be most effective when they are part of a larger web of activities aimed at protecting children. Before it was declared child-friendly, the village of Baijapur had one club which undertook the occasional action like road-cleaning. But agreeing to become “child-friendly” has served as a catalyst for other civic initiatives, including a “child protection committee” with 9 members. This committee has visited other villages and plans to start immunizing children and also register births. It meets with the child-friendly club every month.

If these larger activities can involve the government, the child-friendly model stands a good chance of being replicated. Several Village Development Committees (VDCs) have already set up child protection committees and the government intends to introduce “child-friendly” monitoring in all 3,000 VDCs in Nepal within five years. In 2011, BASE signed a trail-blazing cooperative agreement with 13 VDCs in Dang district under which BASE (through donors) and the local government both invested 300,000 rupees each in child friendly villages.


There is plenty of evidence to suggest that BASE’s advocacy has had an impact. For example, one BASE project, supported by Anti-Slavery International (ASI) since 2010, has provided scholarships for 458 children at preparatory school and apprenticeship training for 100 boys and girls. Of these, 60 had jobs in 2013. Another project organized teacher training for 132 women.

BASE also runs a program in 22 schools in Bardiya district, Education for Freedom, which works with parents and children of former bonded laborers. The number of children going to school in the villages supported by BASE in the five Tharus districts increased by 64% between 2007 and 2010. The percentage of drop-outs fell by 24%. The number of child laborers in some selected areas fell from 2093 to 771. These and other programs have been supported by governments (eg the Netherlands) and foundations, like Banyan Tree.

The kamlari protest in Kathmandu met with police violence

But BASE is the first to agree that these one-off projects need to be subsumed under a broad program to combat child labor, driven by a single coherent vision. This is difficult, because BASE’s many donors do not fund any projects on child labor at present. BASE has asked AP to help, and the two partners feel that challenging impunity might offer the best point of entry. A single successful prosecution could put some fear into employers, and change behavior.

This idea is now being explored between AP, BASE and two close NGO allies (SWAN in Dang and and Concern in Kathmandu). Such a program would start by identifying working children and employers, and by setting up a joint legal team in Dang and Kathmandu. AP would help by building an international constituency outside Nepal, using the Love Blankets and lobbying UN agencies like the ILO. Eventually, the campaign could set longer-term goals, including the establishment of a High Commission for Child Labor. This bold agenda could hopefully capture the imagination of Nepalis, like the campaign to abolish kamaiya a decade ago.

Support from AP and Peace Fellows

Adrienne Henck (2010) was deported after a thief stole her passport on the flight out to Nepal. Within a week, she had raised enough money to return and finish her fellowship at BASE. Together with Karie Cross, Adrienne produced the first Love Blanket and went on to earn a PHD. Her thesis – on child-friendly villages – is still used by BASE.

BASE’s partnership with AP began in 2009, when Dilli Chaudhary visited AP in Washington. AP’s first Peace Fellow, Kan Yan, spent that summer at BASE producing a documentary. The following year, Peace Fellows Adrienne Henck (left) and Karie Cross helped children from child-friendly villages to produce a Love Blanket – the first time this had been attempted in Nepal.

Adrienne and Karie were followed in 2011 by Peace Fellows Chantal Uwizera and Maelanny Purwaningrum, who produced two Love Blankets and a traditional Tharu quilt.Chantal and Maelanny was one of the most diverse teams ever deployed by AP. Chantal, a refugee from the Rwandan genocide, was studying at American University in Washington. Maelanny, from Indonesia, was studying at Oslo University when she volunteered for BASE.

: Sujita Basnet
(George Washington University)

2013: Emily MacDonald
(Tufts University)

2012: Rachel Palmer
(University of Michigan)

2012: Alexander Kelly
(Georgetown University)

2011: Maelanny Purwaningrum
(Oslo University)

2011: Chantel Uwizera
(American University)

2010: Karie Cross
(Maryland University)

2010: Adrienne Henck
(New York University)

2009: Kan Yan
(Harvard University)

BASE’s President Dilli Chaudhary then cemented the partnership when he visited Washington in December and appeared on a panel with Karie and Chantal at American University. Dilli also attended the unveiling of the second and third Love Blankets.

Across Cultures: The 2011 fellows at BASE were among the most diverse ever deployed by AP. Corey Black (second from left) was from Canada. Chantal Uwizera was originally from Rwanda. Maelanny Purwaningrum, from Indonesia, was studying at Oslo University when she volunteered for BASE.

In the spring of 2012, AP’s director Iain Guest visited Nepal with AP Board member Scott Allen to explore with BASE the possibility of establishing a National Commission on Child Labor. On their return, AP submitted a proposal to the US Department of Labor on behalf of BASE and two other Nepali NGOs.

Scott and Iain were followed in the summer of 2012 by Peace Fellows Alex Kelly and Rachel Palmer, who created a database for working children, and worked with freed kamlaharis to produce painted squares for two more Love Blankets. Unlike previous blankets, these were assembled in the US.

The two 2013 Fellows, Emily MacDonald, from Tufts, and Sujita Basnet, from George Washington University, began developing the outlines of a new program on child labor.

Emily’s arrival coincided with a major demonstration in Kathmandu by freed kamlaharis, protesting against the apparent murder of Srijana Chaudhary, a 12-year old kamlahari. Emily described the story in a blog, and AP followed up with a news bulletin.

Chantal, Peace Fellow and Rock Star.

AP is committed to developing a program with BASE which we hope will put employers in jail. In late October 2013, AP’s Deputy Director Karin Orr visited BASE and two other Nepali NGOs (CONCERN and SWAN) which had expressed interest in collaborating. Karin worked with them to develop program goals, and we will use these in seeking support for the program in 2014.

2011 Peace Fellow Chantal Uwizera was treated like a rock star when she worked at BASE. Villagers had never seen an African before, let alone someone with beaded hair. This video captures one affectionate exchange. The video attracted 4,000 views in a week, testifying to Chantal’s star appeal.


Photos by 2013 Fellow Sujita Basnet

Photos by 2013 Fellow Emily MacDonald

Photos by 2012 Fellow Rachel Palmer

Photos by 2012 Fellow Alexander Kelly

Photos by 2011 Fellow Maelanny Purwaningrum

Photos by 2011 Fellow Chantal Uwizera

Photos by 2010 Fellow Karie Cross

Photos by 2010 Fellow Adrienne Henck

Photos by 2009 Fellow Kan Yan

The Love Blankets

Read about the Love Blankets by clicking on the image below.


Backward Society Education (BASE)
Project Office Tulsipur Municipality-6 Dang
Rapti Zone, Nepal
Phone: +0977-82-520055
Other: +0977-82-520312
Fax: +0977-82-522212


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