I could not stop looking at the gigantic poster of Nepal: “Where heritage and tradition run deep”. While trying to keep up with the conversation with the guy next to me, my glance was continuously stolen by the advertisement on the other side of the train. Nepal, a place where white mountains surround the horizon, where ancient temples conserve their majesty, and, surprisingly, where 1 out of 3 eight-year-olds are exploited. Welcome to the land of, as Eduardo Galeano said, “the nobodies, the no-bodied, owners of nothing”. Let me introduce to you the Kamlari.
The plain and fertile foothills of the Himalayas have traditionally been cultivated by the Tharu people or “the people of the forests”- as they call themselves. For hundreds of years, the community has practiced a short fallow-shifting cultivation of rice, mustard, corn, and lentils, and collected medicinal plants and fruits in order to become nearly self-sufficient. Their connection with their land is remarkably spiritual: the pantheon of their gods includes a large number of forest deities.
The Tharu community is known for being immune to mosquito bites carrying malaria. In “One people: The Making of Tharu identity in Nepal”, A. Guneratne explains how even in 1902, a British Christian missionary recorded in his diary that “Plainsmen and paharis generally die if they sleep in the Terai”. In 1988, this immunity was finally confirmed by a group of biologists from the University of Sassari, who were doing a comparative study on between the Tharu and other ethnic groups living nearby. Their finding of genes for thalassemia in nearly all Tharu studied was consistent with an incidence of malaria that was nearly seven times lower among Tharu.
In the 1950s, the support provided by the World Health Organisation for the Nepalese government gave its fruits: malaria was eradicated in the forests and fields of the Terai region. The disappearance of the malarial swamps brought new migrants eager to establish themselves in fertile lands. The Tharu were driven out of their homes, deprived of their property; they became an inferior caste and slaves of the new landowners. And this is when the Kamlari system was born. Peasants without land or work asked for loans from the landowners to allow them to cultivate the lands and sustain a minimum livelihood. What did they give in exchange? Their daughters.
Every January, during the Maghi Festival, Tharu girls and young women would be examined by high-caste buyers, sold for the best price. Around 20 dollars are normally paid for a year of servitude by the girls, who are bought under the “au-pair excuse”: a baby-sitter who will get a good education while being part of the family. Unfortunately, the story of any old Kamlari differs greatly from this version: exploitation, violence, and rape are the common denominators of their childhoods.
Since the Nepalese Supreme Court outlawed this practice in 2006, around 12,500 kamlari have been rescued by the California-based NGO Nepal Youth Foundation. It is roughly estimated that 300 girls remain hidden in unknown whereabouts. This, at least, gives hope: now those who own them are aware that it is not acceptable; not long ago having two or three girls was an admired luxury.
But changes do not happen only with laws. The rural misery in which most of the Tharu live is an important factor to take into account. Even when their daughters had been taken from the hands of rich landowners, the families would not accept them unless something is given in exchange. Thus, authorities are sometimes in need of giving the families a piglet or a sack of rice. But again, condemning those who sell humans is easy when the aroma of a nice dinner is expected every night.
To the eyes of those used to witness the traffic of girls, the Kamlari system is just a traditional exchange, a necessary sacrifice of these young women for the subsistence of their families. To those who spend years as slaves, it is an under-life experience. Hence, it is not surprising that the main leaders of the movement to free Kamlari girls are among those who actually saw and felt the abusive treatment of the ones who once dared to claim ownership over them.
In 2013, protests led by old Kamlaris from all over Nepal broke out in the capital to protest against this form of outrageous slavery that remains even in the 21st century. The riots were triggered by the shady death of Srijana Chaudhary, a 12-year old Kamlari who was burnt in her owner’s house. Contradicting their history of silent submission, the Kamlaris decided to speak out after the local police alleged that it had been a case of suicide, a position that they still defend.
Breaking the walls that hide those who are denied their own life should not be a “minority issue”. We, as much as anyone else, could be among “the nobodies, the no-bodied, owners of nothing”.