Adrienne Henck

Adrienne Henck (Backward Society Education - BASE): Adrienne graduated from New York University with a Master’s degree in International Education. After her graduation, Adrienne worked at PCI-Media Impact, an NGO that uses creative media and story-telling to mobilize people and communities in sexual and reproductive health. Adrienne also taught English for three years with the J.E.T. Program. When she undertook her fellowship, Adrienne was preparing to pursue a Ph.D. at Penn State University. After her fellowship, she wrote: “I know that (this) experience is going to have a lasting impact on my academic and professional career. I loved Nepal and plan to return as soon as possible. I definitely have a newfound appreciation for how much we have in America."

A Surprising Perspective: Introduction to Bonded Labor

12 Jun

Despite some difficulties in getting here (immense gratitude goes out to my amazing supporters), I present this latest entry to you with love from Kathmandu.  With just one day in the city before beelining to my final destination in rural southwest Nepal, I stopped in at the US Embassy to meet with Peter Zirnite, Economic/Commercial Chief of the Political and Economic Section and expert on labor-related issues. 

Mr. Zirnite briefed me on the issues of bonded labor, child labor (including the practice of kamalari or daughter selling) and marginalization of the Tharus.  While I was not surprised to learn of the insufficient and unreliable documentation of these issues, another idea that Mr. Zirnite shared with me almost knocked me out of my chair.

Until the 1950’s, the primarily Tharu-inhabited Terai region of Nepal was a malaria hot-bed.  However, as scientific studies have documented, the Tharu possess a genetic resistance to the disease.  With the influx of international aid in the post-World War II era, malaria was nearly eradicated, priming the region for habitation by other Nepalis. 

Though the practice of bonded labor can be traced to ancient times, the influx of land-seeking Nepalis during the 1950’s and 1960’s resulted in the birth of the modern kamaiya, or bonded labor, system.  The migrant Nepalis brought with them cultural norms of private property distinct from the Tharu belief in common land ownership.  These contested norms, combined with the Tharus position at the bottom of the caste system, produced conditions ripe for the perpetuation of inequality and marginalization of the Tharu.  Enter bonded labor.  Tharus were forced from their homes, forced to work for landowners to survive and burdened with debt that was passed on to their children.     

This is the part where I nearly fall out of my chair.  Some Tharus attribute the modern practice of bonded labor to the international development initiatives that eradicated malaria from the Terai.  While this view is only held by a minority and is not necessarily supported by BASE, it nevertheless represents a very interesting take on the multiple faces of international development.  Is this a case of good intentions gone wrong?  A failure to adequately weigh the importance of local culture?  Please share your thoughts below and stay tuned for my next entry from the Terai.

Tharu thatched-roof home: Land rights have been a highly contentious issue in the Terai region of Nepal (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)

Posted By Adrienne Henck

Posted Jun 12th, 2010


  • Stephanie

    June 14, 2010


    Great entry. It’s good that you’re bringing the locals’ thoughts to us. I look forward to reading more.

  • Melinda LIes

    June 16, 2010


    Hello Adrienne,

    I am currently living at Children’s Peace Home outside Ghorahi (a few km’s from Tulsipur). I would love to meet you while you are here. We have a couple of BASE supported children at CPH, Sabita and Sima – two beautiful spunky little girls! I am only here until June 24th, so hopefully you will get message in time. I will also try to contact someone at BASE and set up a meeting. This is an amazing country and as you are finding out, with an interesting culture.

    Best regards,


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