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Last Updated: Friday, 2 March 2007, 00:27 GMT
Desperate plight of Nepal 'slave girls'
Charles Haviland
BBC News, Dang, western Nepal

Junu Shrestha
Indentured child Junu Shrestha is unlikely to get an education
In the undergrowth, 13-year-old Junu Shrestha hacks away to gather fodder for her landlady's cattle.

When she has collected a pile bigger than herself, she hoists it onto her back and fixes it with a headband.

She trudges back to the house, 20 minutes away.

She is one of at least 20,000 girls in western Nepal who are working as indentured domestic servants in conditions campaigners say amount to slavery.

Parents send them away in exchange for a sum of money paid by landlords, who sometimes keep the girls for years.

'Nothing wrong'

Usually the girls are recruited by a middleman.

In recent years charitable groups have freed nearly 3,000 such girls, who are known as kamlaris.

Nepal's indentured girls
The girls are not paid for their manual labour

But the system persists despite being outlawed last year.

"I get up at six," Junu tells the BBC shyly.

"I clean the house, sweep the yard, fetch water and feed the cattle.

"I walk to the jungle to cut fodder. Later I wash the dishes, then I bring water again and collect fodder again. Sometimes I wash clothes."

She says she misses her school, and her friends who are now too far away for her to visit.

Her situation is particularly bad. She is an orphan, and used to live with her uncle.

She says he was an alcoholic who sent her away 18 months ago after a house-owner promised him 4,000 rupees a year - about $60 - for Junu's services.

Junu gets no money herself.

The landlady and her daughter see nothing wrong in having Junu as a kamlari. They say the payment is good and that her uncle is happy with it.

"This girl is an orphan and she landed up in our lap," they say.

Regular payments mean a girl may remain a kamlari for years, with no option of leaving.

Ready victims

In the cold winter mist outside the town of Ghorahi, women draw water from a well and children play marbles in the dust.

Families are living in small houses they have built themselves.

Junu Chaudhry and family
The father of Junu Chaudhry, centre, has problems supporting her

These are the kinds of people, mostly from the impoverished Tharu ethnic group, that send their daughters to be indentured labourers.

Most of these families were until recently bonded labourers themselves.

They are squatting on government land and have no money.

Other families used to have land but lost it to richer incomers.

Some offer their daughters in exchange for landlords letting them cultivate the land and keep some of the crop.

Traditionally, many people have seen the kamlari system as positive - a money-earner in big families.

There is little contraception here. Many men believe vasectomies would sap their strength.

The girls miss out on school. Parents often lose almost all trace of their children.

Changing times?

There have, however, been major efforts to end the system, spearheaded by a Nepalese charity, Friends of Needy Children (FNC) - especially during the Tharus' winter festival of Maghi.

Indentured women protest
Nepalese women march in protest against the kamlari system

In a park in the highway town of Lamahi, a cast including former kamlaris stage a play with a message against indentured labour.

A drunken father sends his daughter away, defying his wife. The girl is beaten and treated cruelly by her landlords.

The crowd, including children and many parents, are captivated.

At the end people from the audience come on stage to try to persuade the father he's wrong.

One succeeds by telling him to pay not for alcohol but for his daughter's schooling.

The young girl is acted by Siba Chaudhary, who was a kamlari for five years.

Experiences and hopes

Siba worked for two families, including that of her landlady's sister who lived nearby.

Nepal NGO drama scene
Siba Chaudhry, left, draws on her experiences for her performance

"The sister's husband tried to abuse me sexually, several times," she recalls.

"He used to come to my room. I would cry, so he never succeeded."

There are many accounts of such sexual abuse, including rape which sometimes results in the kamlari getting pregnant and being dismissed.

Siba says she was usually fed with leftovers, and was beaten and verbally abused by some of the women she worked for.

She wants to become a lawyer to take action against those who keep kamlaris.

The BBC visited a family who have just agreed to take back their daughter, Junu Chaudhary, after persuasion by FNC's local partner, Social Welfare Action Nepal.

The father is clearly in two minds about feeding an extra mouth.

But the mother, Uma, while hesitant, says "we do realise it's a bad practice... we want her at home. We don't have much to eat, but we'll share the vegetables we have."

SWAN supplies the freed girls with uniforms and usually provides their families with economic recompense in the form of a goat or a pig to earn them income.

But there are many girls still working, and a lot of persuading and education for campaigners to do.

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