I met Urmila Chaudhary in the lobby of the hostel in Kathmandu where she is staying while she recuperates. I followed her up a flight of stairs to her room, it was a long process and painful to watch as she slowly made her way up the stairs, still stiff and limping. Urmila had been released from the hospital only 3 days before I met her after being beaten by police officers during a peaceful protest in Kathmandu. Urmila was identified as one of the leaders of the protest and was targeted by the police and beaten until she was unconscious. She spent a week in the hospital before she was discharged.
Urmila is the president of the Freed Kamlari Development Forum (FKDF), an organization she founded after she was freed from bonded labor, which seeks to free other kamlaris and advocate for kamlari’s rights. The kamlari system is a form of bonded child labor that is specific to Tharu girls in western Nepal, where parents sell their girls to wealthy Nepali families once they are 6-7 years old in exchange for either cash or for becoming sharecroppers on the land owner’s property. The parents and owners create a contract which bonds the girl to their new owner for a period of one year but the contract can be renewed indefinitely. Parents are also told that their daughters will be sent to school as part of their contract, an attractive offer to poor families who can’t afford to send their children to school, but rarely do employers fulfill this promise. Though this system was officially abolished in 2000, it is still widely practiced and there have yet to be any prosecutions for employers violating this law.
In late March the death of 12 year old kamlari Srijana Chaudhary made the news in Nepal. Police reported that the girl committed suicide by dousing herself in kerosene and lighting herself on fire. When Urmila heard the news of Srijana’s death she was immediately suspicious about the circumstances surrounding the alleged suicide. Kamlaris are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse at the hand of their owners and Urmila suspected that Srijana was most likely murdered. She and others working with FKDF launched an investigation into the alleged suicide.
Srijana’s owner told Urmila that Srijana committed suicide because she was doing poorly at school and was ashamed. Her teachers and classmates however claim that Srijana was among the top students in her class. Srijana’s friends also confided that she would often come to school with cuts and bruises and complain that she was afraid to sleep alone because ghosts would come for her. This along with evidence she found that Srijana was extremely afraid of her owner’s brother-in-law led Urmila to believe that Srijana was being sexually abused. The police initially questioned the brother-in-law, but his father is a politician in the district so the police were paid off and the death ruled a suicide.
Urmila was so upset about these findings that she stayed up late into the night writing a report on her findings by the light of her cell phone, after the power was cut in her village. The next day she presented the report to the police, however they did not reopen the case. For the next couple months Urmila and FKDF attempted to find someone who was willing to look into Srijana’s death and presented the case to various politicians. After weeks without any progress Urmila organized 70 ex-kamlari girls from 5 districts in the west to come to Kathmandu and protest.
Kamlari Protest in Kathmandu
She and the other girls arrived in Kathmandu with food and supplies to protest for at least a week. After protesting peacefully for four days and still not receiving any response from the government, media or NGOs, Urmila’s case finally received some media attention. Unfortunately it was because the police began to violently suppress the peaceful protest. Five of the girls, including Urmila were severely injured and hospitalized and 40 were arrested and subsequently beaten in jail. Urmila and the girls were shocked by this violence. The mistreatment of the girls has caused a national outrage and sparked more protests in the west of the country. In response the government has promised to investigate Srijana’s murder and compensated her family with 500,000 rupees (approximately $5,340 USD). Urmila will return to Dang once she has healed, but will return to protest again if the government does not fulfill its promise to investigate.
Police Violently Attack Kamlari Protesters
When asked what we can do to assist in the fight against the kamlari system Urmila responded “the international community needs to pressure the Nepali government to enforce the [anti-child labor] law.” She says that government officials and powerful Neplai families are the ones who benefit from these exploitative child labor systems and that if things are going to change in Nepal pressure must be applied from the international community as well as from Nepali citizens.
I’m grateful to Urmila for taking the time to speak with me and sharing her experiences. In the coming weeks I’ll be delving into this issue more in depth and look forward to sharing my findings with you.
Posted By Emily MacDonald
Posted Jun 13th, 2013