URMILA CHAUDHARY is a Nepalese women’s rights activist and a former domestic slave under the kamalari system, a form of debt bondage. At the age of six, she was forced to leave her family and was sold into domestic servitude. For 11 years she was exploited, abused, and forced to work without any compensation in the house of a wealthy, well-known family in Kathmandu. She was freed in 2007, at 17 years old, with the help of international and local NGOs. Upon gaining her freedom, Chaudhary decided to fight for the many girls still enslaved under the kamalari system. In December 2007, she was elected the first president of the Common Forum for Kamalari Freedom (CFKF), an organization founded by girls and women to fight for their rights.
“I started to learn the English language only at 17, when I was freed from my slave life. We are known as Kamalari, which means hardworking girl. When girls are 6 or 7 years old, they are sent out of the house, and they are sent to work as a slave. This is deeply rooted in the community.
Every year, at our great festival, agents come. They make false promises to the girl and her parents, they say they will send the girls to school. Of course, they do not fufill their promise. They are sent to do domestic work, including agricultural labor. For this, the parents get a minimum payment.
Girls are subject to physical and mental abuse, and in some cases, sexual abuse too.
Kamaiya is the name for the system of bonded labor in Nepal, the victims are known as Kamaiyas. Laborers farm for a landowner, who may take entire families, especially daughters, into bond. Children of slaves will be automatically owned by the slave master.
When I became Kamalari, I was just 6 years old. I was sent to Kathmandu, which is a six hour drive from my home. If I didn’t make my house owner happy, I was beaten, and subject to verbal abuse. I took care of the children, I worked in the house: there was no limit to what I needed to do to make my house owner happy. I never had direct eye contact with my owners.
In this painful condition, I spent almost 12 years.
I worked in a different house. Finally, with the help of my own brother, I found my home again. He was assisted by several organizations to bring me back, and finally I returned to my home.
When I reached home, I spoke out. At first there were only 18 of us. But we became a precedent, and organized a rally in our village. Our forum became 2000 people strong. We hold performances for education against the Kamalari systems.
In 2009, we declared our district, Dang, as a free district for freed Kamalari. With this, we support education, and the creation of local business. Now, we can see happiness on the faces of freed young women, and live with the knowledge that they face a better future.”
Chaudhary was born in Manpur in the Terai Plains of southwestern Nepal. Her parents were Kamaiya, bonded laborers, as are many landless farmers from the ethnic group of the Tharu. Chaudhary and all of the women in her family—her mother, grandmother, aunt, and sisters—worked as slaves under the kamalari system.
After she was freed in 2007 with the help of international and local NGOs, Chaudhary was finally able to start school. She is currently attending high school in Lamahi/Dang in Nepal. As soon as she gained freedom, Chaudhary decided she had to fight for the many girls who still live in slavery underkamalari.
In December 2007, she was elected the first president of the Common Forum for Kamalari Freedom (CFKF), an organization founded by women and girls to fight for their rights. Chaudhary and a delegation of girls traveled several times to see the president, the prime minister, and other important government leaders in Nepal to seek financial support for the education of former slaves. Chaudhary organizes performances in villages to raise awareness among girls and their parents. She is a role model for the many freed girls, ranging from the ages of eight to twenty, who were unable to return to their families after being rescued from servitude.