Nepal – A journey of struggle for the Kamlari-free community

Kaushila

by Basant Bhattari, Program Officer LWF Nepal

Kaushila Chaudhary, 25 of Chaumala VDC – 7 in Kailali, a far western district in Nepal is a committed energetic woman engaged in eradicating Kamlari system (a system under which a girl from freed-Kamaiya family serves as domestic help in landlord’s home). Having born to a Kamaiya (bonded labor) family, Chaudhary was grown up in the same house where her grandfather served as Kamaiya for years.

Poor economic condition and widespread gender discrimination did not permit her peruse formal education. However, her commitment, courage and understanding over the issue of poor and marginalized people like Kamaiya and Kamlari remains outstanding. “This strength that I have gained is developed through the foundation of the informal classes that LWF Nepal carried out a decade ago,” she recalls.  

Having served as Kamlari herself, she not only saw her fellow Kamlaries suffer during childhood, but also experienced extent of hardship that a child could hardly ever imagine. Work of Kamlari depend on age, which includes of cleaning dishes, wash clothes, clear animal dung from sheds besides supporting in other labor-based household works.  Mostly Kamlari’s age vary from 7 to 21 years.  Despite the violation of their rights, parents send their children to the hands of landlords knowingly/unknowingly or in compulsion. “Kamlaris are provided with the food if any left after the members of landlord’s house are done eating. This sometimes leaves them hungry. They are also given stale food or left over by the members of the house owner,” she said.  Besides, Kamlaris also face torture and other forms of abuses. “But their sufferings often remain unseen and voices unheard. Instead, they get warnings. Many Kamlaris get their marriage fixed by their landlords. They are sexually and psychologically abused by landlords and their children.   We have found 102 cases where house-owner abused Kamlaris. About 35 Kamlaris are missing,” she added.

Let’s take her example. It was mandatory for her to serve as Kamlari as she belonged to a Kamaiya family. But her labor was never paid. She served as Kamlari till the age of 15. She does not even remember at what age she started serving as Kamlari.

At the age of 15, she had the opportunity to participate in Chelibeti class run by LWF Nepal. She also wanted to join adult literacy class. Initially she was not permitted as she was young by adult literacy class criteria. But later when she cried a lot then she was enrolled into the class. She was a bright student due to which organizers asked her parents to get her enrolled into school. But they did not. In fact they wanted her to learn some skills. “Though she was still young to participate in vocation training run by LWF Nepal, she received 15 day’s weaving training due to her strong desire.

Soon after she completed the training, she started weaving business, which started giving her NRs 9000 to 10,000 profit every month.  The income enabled her to raise her family status. Then on, her family borrowed land on Adhiya (sharing half of the production with the land holder) for cultivation. “We bought a cart and 0.03 hector of land in village and some more land in Chauraha (land with better location). It was done through the profit of the business.”

By the time, she had been the secretary of the Kalika Women Group, a savings credit group.  At the same time LWF Nepal facilitated to form Kamaiya Pratha Unmulan Samaj (KPUS), which has184 groups and nine main committees with 16,632 group members. In course of taking full responsibility of the organization, the then secretary requested if she could replace his position, which she did. She had to choose between her growing business and the struggle to emancipation. She also appeared in the election as treasurer and won. This involvement made her active in anti-slavery movement. They carried out sit-in-protest in front of District Administration Office for 19 days.  They organized and mobilized people in different activities of movement such as meeting, gathering, rally and search of land for settling Kamaiyas. During those days including herself the then Kamaiya into the movement faced several challenges. Since armed conflict between Maoist and the government was in place, she was once arrested on suspicion of being Maoist. Similarly, she was sometimes attacked by group of men.

Yet she remained as determined as ever. The Andolan Parichalan Samitee handed over the responsibility of settling Kamaiyas into one of several camps to her. She used to guard the camp even during night. Sometimes police would stop passage of the belongings of the then Kamaiyas from landlord’s house to camp and sometimes the forest officials used to set the camp into fire. She used to handle every difficulty.  Finally, Kamaiya system was abolished in 2002. But Kaushila’s mission did not fulfill. 

At the school going age, hundreds of Kamlaries were toiling hard and getting tortured at landlord’s house. She demanded to form a woman department within KPUS. “I was not heard rather I lost the candidacy for the post of vice-chairperson,” she said.  This led to the formation of Freed Kamaiya Women Development Forum (FKWDF).  The forum formed three years ago comprises an 11-membered executive board of ex-Kamlaris. In a short span of time she has been able to have access to big organization’s fund to implement programs to empower her community people. “Some people support and some people get surprised how am I brining such projects, when several experienced organizations are unable doing so,” she said. The organization began with the funding of LWF Nepal and is able to draw resources from Free the Slave International and Plan International.

The woman with a mission, Kaushila has the commitment of declaring Kailali a Kamlari free district by the end of 2012. Thereafter, she aims to have respectful rehabilitation of Kamlaris. “Once they are rehabilitated I will work for violence against women,” she said.

Besides leading her own organization she is also the central member of Mukta Kamaiya Samasya Samadhan Aayog, a commission formed by the government to deal with the issues of freed-Kamaiya, district committee assistant secretary of Adibasi Janajati Mahasangha, an indigenous people’s federation and district committee member of NGO federation.

She said, “I thank LWF Nepal for its work on Kamaiya system abolition in Nepal.” However proper rehabilitation is still on the way that of about 9662 households (according to the government figure) 7,143 ex-Kamaiyas have received land after they were declared free by the governmentShe is second among eight siblings. Some of them live with her in district headquarter in Dhangadhi, while her parents live in the village. The Kalika group, which almost dissolved after she left, has been reactivated by her. 

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