Maghe Sankranti, NYF and Freed Kamlaris Celebrate 20-Year Journey
Maghe Sankranti 2021
(Above, Jamuna Tharu, a Freed Kamlari and social motivator, prepares to celebrate Maghe Sankranti in 2009.)
Maghe Sankranti – The Tharu people in Nepal’s Terai region celebrate their New Year on Maghe Sankranti, which falls in mid-January. In 2021, that day was January 14th. Happy New Year!
For generations, this auspicious day had a grim meaning for young Tharu girls. Maghe Sankranti was the day the year’s debts came due. On this day, many families settled their debts in the only way available to them: by bonding their young daughters for a year of indentured servitude in the homes of strangers in Nepal’s urban areas. For these girls, some as young as five or six years old, “Happy New Year” meant goodbye to the safety of home—and a frightening journey to a life of kitchen slavery, dehumanization, and abuse. Bonded girls were known as kamlari.
But now, the girls freed from this practice are grown up and ensuring freedom and justice for their sisters. As the Freed Kamlari celebrate Maghe Sankranti this year, they are celebrating hard-won victories built over the past 20 years—including the certainty that the daughters of their minority ethnic group will never again be bonded away.
NYF began fighting the kamlari practice in 2000, with Som Paneru, Olga Murray, and Man Bahadur Chettri leading the way in developing long-term, targeted programming designed to free, heal, educate, and empower the individual girls and to challenge Nepal’s government to eradicate the practice once and for all.
Nepal’s government made the kamlari practice illegal in 2013.
In 2020, we published a three-part series celebrating the Empowering Freed Kamlari program’s transition to Tharu control, the rising leaders of the Kamlari Movement, and the ways the Freed Kamlari Development Forum is providing community support during COVID-19.
Today, NYF is proud to share another resource with the NYF Family: an in-depth study on the impact of our 20-year efforts to empower young women impacted by the kamlari practice.
This study was conducted by an independent group of field researchers in 2019. They interviewed a sample of the women freed from the kamlari practice through NYF’s efforts, focusing their questions on topics linked to NYF’s mission: health, shelter, education, and freedom/empowerment.
During the 20-year Empowering Freed Kamlari program, NYF rescued 12,932 girls from domestic bondage. At NYF, we try to focus on individual stories as much as possible. But what about the other thousands of individuals served? If you’re interested in statistics about the broader impacts of our work, please read on!
We’re proud to report that the findings were incredibly positive! In almost all cases, the Freed Kamlaris and their families were not only doing better than they had before NYF intervened—they were doing better than national averages!
Here are just a few highlights:
Other than offering mental health services through Ankur Counseling Center, the Empowering Freed Kamlaris program was not focused on health or health services. But researchers were surprised to discover the ripple effects of NYF’s focus on education.
Women impacted by the Empowering Freed Kamlaris program report much higher than average access to health education and resources for themselves and their families. For example…
Freed Kamlaris are having fewer children than their mothers did—an average of 1.5, which is lower than the national average. They report using family planning methods to ensure their families don’t grow larger than they can support.
Of the Freed Kamlaris with children, 88.7% delivered their last child in a healthcare facility, 97.2% had at least one prenatal checkup, and 82.4% had four or more prenatal checkups. A whopping 93.4% had had all of their children fully immunized as recommended for their age. All of them had had their children at least partially immunized.
(Above, a 20-year-old married Freed Kamlari shows off her one-year-old son during her interview.)
Extreme poverty was the main reason families reported for bonding their girls into the kamlari practice. NYF worked to ensure better economic resources for the girls we served, but home-building was not part of our programming.
Yet now, over 80% of Freed Kamlaris and their families live in homes constructed at least in part with “improved” materials. This includes at least one (and often a combination) of materials like galvanized sheet roofing (instead of thatch), cement or stone flooring (instead of earth), and brick or cement walls (instead of mud or bamboo).
Additionally, 90% of these families have access to sanitation facilities (plumbing) within their homes. Of the 9.5% using outhouses instead, many reported that this was intentional. Such facilities inside the home can be considered “polluting” for religious and cultural reasons, and many of the Freed Kamlaris rescued in early years reported that being forced to clean modern toilets was among their most demeaning experiences as kamlari.
When asked about their household’s main source of energy for lighting, 91.3% used electricity—a high proportion, indicating relative affluence. But 6.5% of the Freed Kamlaris surprised the researchers by reporting their use of solar panels! Off-the-grid energy sources were so unexpected, they had to be added to the list of options on field researcher questionnaires.
Improved housing is one of many ways these empowered women have leveraged their education and economic power to better their own lives.
Education was a primary focus of NYF’s Empowering Freed Kamlari efforts from the very beginning. The earliest girls rescued returned home because NYF promised their families a piglet or goat in exchange for their daughters’ freedom to live at home and attend school.
The response was so strong that classrooms in the Terai region of Nepal were soon overwhelmed with too many students. Some in local government complained that NYF was causing problems for the school system! NYF responded by building 61 additional classrooms between 2004 and 2014 as well as ensuring schools had access to sufficient trained teachers, toilets, drinking water tanks, and furniture.
(Above, a group of newly-freed Tharu girls prepare to enter school in 2003.)
NYF also established and ran “catch up” classes to help young girls deprived of early education during their kamlari years. These courses ensured students could succeed alongside classmates close to their own age, instead of forcing teenagers to attend school with kindergarteners.
Now, Nepal’s national literacy rate stands at 67%. Among Freed Kamlaris, literacy is at 97%.
The average Nepalese adult today has completed 4.9 years of education. Among Freed Kamlaris, the average is 8 years—and rising, as 22.4% of Freed Kamlaris are still in school! About 30% of these women have completed grade 10 (the rough equivalent of finishing high school in the US).
Nearly two-thirds of the parents of Freed Kamlaris—61%!—had begun sending their sons to school once they saw their daughters going.
About one in three Freed Kamlaris have completed a vocational training course or received technical education in a field like engineering, computer technology, health care, dressmaking, poultry farming, or screen printing.
Around 4,000 Freed Kamlaris have received additional training through NYF in community leadership, cooperative management, organizational development, and entrepreneurship.
Just under 90% of Freed Kamlaris named educational opportunity as a way their rescue had improved their lives.
(Above, a Freed Kamlari, in pink, tells a field researcher about life since her rescue. All of the field researchers were women fluent in the Tharu language.)
In many cases, freedom comes from education and economic empowerment.
Family members of the Freed Kamlaris reported that 92.3% of these women are currently contributing to household expenses (and remember, this includes the 22.4% who are attending school!). A similar number—91.1%—said that their family’s economic condition had improved in the last 10 years.
These families say the economic improvement came from their newfound ability to buy their own farmland or rent a larger area of sharecropped land, from the ability to start small businesses, or because of the employment of a family member.
About 29% of Freed Kamlaris are either employed or own a nontraditional business, including nontraditional crops like henna and mushrooms. This may seem like a low number, but the Tharu people are primarily a culture of farmers—so 29% is an enormous uptick!
Those Freed Kamlaris who have chosen to continue following the agricultural path are reporting huge advances as well. A full 75.1% of their families grow enough food to make their families entirely or almost entirely self-sufficient year-round through farming alone—an enormous blessing in tough economic times like the world is experiencing now.
(Above, a young Tharu girl grins at the camera. Taken during the early years of NYF’s involvement with the Tharu people, this photo captures a moment very soon after this child’s return from her time as a kamlari.)
But freedom is also an internal experience—confidence in oneself and the ability to make decisions.
Researchers asked Freed Kamlaris whether they were allowed to make decisions in important areas of their lives: what age to marry, who to marry, whether or not to attend school, subjects to study in school, what career or job to pursue, and how to spend one’s earnings.
The area of least empowerment was what age to marry—90% of Freed Kamlaris were empowered to choose when to marry. (A main focus for the Freed Kamlari Development Forum is combatting early marriage in the region.)
When asked about subjects to study in school, 100% of these remarkable women reported they were empowered to make their own choices.
Freed Kamlaris were also found to have a high level of self-confidence that surprised the Nepalese researchers. These women were much more confident in themselves and their futures than the average Nepalese adult! The researchers also noted that this high confidence went hand-in-hand with grounded, realistic thinking.
A full 84.5% of Freed Kamlaris believed that their lives would improve over the next 5 years—and none believed they would be worse off.
Over 2/3 believed they would be able to take better care of their families in 5 years, and 54.7% saw themselves becoming more self-confident during the same time.
Ten percent of Freed Kamlaris hold leadership positions in community groups, and 21.5% are involved in social activism focused on the kamlari movement, ending violence against women, and ending early child marriage.
At NYF, we have so much to celebrate this Maghe Sankranti!
Thank you to every NYF donor for each thoughtful gift you have invested into these women and girls over the past 20 years. Your love—offered in the form of piglets, scholarships, start-up funds, vocational training, word-of-mouth, and so much more—have built opportunities and strength for a generation of young women. Dhanyabad! We are so grateful for your belief in these girls.
Now, 20 years after Som and Olga learned of the kamlari practice in Western Nepal, the journey continues for these incredible women as they step forward with new independence. The program’s valuable work is being carried forward with strength by the Freed Kamlari Development Forum—a Terai-based nonprofit led by the Freed Kamlaris themselves.
At NYF, we’re excited to step forward as well, putting 20 years of expertise to good use helping empower women and girls through new and continuing programming! We’re using the lessons learned over 20 years to continue serving communities of children throughout Nepal, ensuring their access to Health, Freedom, Shelter, and Education.
A freed girl grins in a bright moment during a 2009 celebration of the Freed Kamlari movement’s progress. Nepal would not make the practice illegal until 2013, but this girl knew the future was bright and change was on the horizon.