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Saturday, November 15, 1997 Published at 02:04 GMT


Widespread slavery found in Nepal

Thousands of Nepalese work as slaves

A human rights group says slavery is still widespread in Nepal.

[ image:  ]
A report by Anti-Slavery International says Nepalese workers are among the most exploited in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people in rural areas are subject to slavery and bonded labour, classed as slavery by the United Nations.

The three-year study by ASI found that around 40,000 Nepalese people were treated as slaves and some 200,000 forced to work unpaid.

Bonded labour and slavery is legal in Nepal. The system is based on tribal tradition.

But now the European Union - which gives Nepal 26 million in aid every year - is putting pressure on the government to make slavery illegal. Six members of the European Parliament are in the country to urge it to introduce a law that will ban bonded labour.

[ image:  ]
Some individuals are effectively bought and sold in a thinly-veiled slave trade, while others are forced into a perpetual cycle of debt by being made to work without adequate pay. A further two million landless agricultural workers are at risk of falling into bonded labour, the report says.

Nepal recently signed an agreement with the EU in which it received several million dollars towards development projects in return for a pledge to introduce a human rights clause in its constitution.

The author of the ASI report, Adam Robertson, says the country lags behind its neighbours in South Asia in efforts to abolish slavery.

"I think that the difference is that in both Pakistan and India they have now recognised that this is a problem, and they have got laws on their statute books at least which is a first step to try and address the problem. In Nepal, they are a long way behind, and there is not really a public perception yet that this is a problem."

The Nepalese Ministry of Labour says it is trying to address the issue but the country has too many other problems to make it a priority.

[ image: Bhakra Bilas Bhusal, Ministry of Labour]
Bhakra Bilas Bhusal, Ministry of Labour
Spokesman Bhakra Bilas Bhusal said: "It would cost a lot of money to free these people. It is not only an embarrassment for Nepal but for humanity as a whole. The donor countries help with other projects, they should help with this too."

However, donor countries argue that Nepal should put its own house in order before calling on outsiders for help.

Local campaigners are trying to bring about change by offering night school to women and children after work. But it will take a long time to teach empowerment to such intimidated people. Besides, bonded workers are often too tired after their day's work to attend.

Life as a bonded worker

The Tharu tribe in the Western Terai region have always been slaves to Nepalese landowners.

[ image: Badal Prasad Chaudhari, a landlord.]
Badal Prasad Chaudhari, a landlord.
One landlord, Badal Prasad Chaudhari, said: "My grandfather had slaves, and his father before him. We have so much land, we can't till it all without them."

Seligram Tharu, a bonded farm worker, is tied to his landlord twice - by tradition and by debt. He has been bonded ever since he borrowed the equivalent of 30 to pay for medicine when he had cholera three years ago.

His wife is part of the deal. Few landlords want to take on a single man since by employing a married man, they get the wife and children too.

[ image: Seligram and his wife work as slaves]
Seligram and his wife work as slaves
Seligram said: "We have to work for him or he'll cut back our food and then we will all starve. Who would chose to be a slave? I hate this life."

Seligram's landlord, Tara Prassad, said he paid his workers in food for their own good: "If you give them money they spend it on alcohol. If you give them rice at least they might give it to their children."

With no way out of his predicament Seligram is already resigned to passing his debt and his bondage on to his children.

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