The centuries-old tradition of bonded labour was ended in Nepal over ten years ago. The end of debt bondage left many families with nothing. The State of Nepal has announced that this year is the last for ex-bonded labourers to register and apply for the benefits they are entitled to.
”They treated us like animals,” says 90-year-old Champi Chaudhari, speaking of her time as a bonded labour. Until 2001, Champi lived as a Kamaiya, working for her landlord and, in her remaining time, for herself. Her landlords got all the profits, while she herself was left with nothing. Now, Champi Chaudhari lives in the village of Gauriganga in western Nepal in a community of ex-bonded labour.
”I’m doing really well now. I no longer have to work, and we have all the facilities here,” she says.
The village community is farming with success, and agricultural work keeps the parents of the families occupied. The members of the community support each other in many ways, for example by babysitting for neighbours when they need to go to the market to sell vegetables. Champi Chaudhari no longer needs to work. As the village elder, she now gets to enjoy her life.
Nepal has a long history of various forms of bonded labour. The Haliya system was banned in 2008 and the Kamaiya system in 2000; in both systems, labour meant hard agricultural labour for the landlord.
When government of Nepal officially ended bonded labour and the debts were forgiven, many were left with nothing, and the situation still has not been fixed. Now, the government of Nepal has announced this year to be the last moment to register and apply for benefits, such as a plot of land. However, the information has not reached all. Another risk is that the designated plot of land may be somewhere other than where the person currently lives. Many have lived in the region for almost 20 years, so relocating would mean leaving one’s community and home.
The lack of livelihoods and the poor employment options in the region have driven men in particular to seek employment in neighbouring countries, especially India. The women stay at home to take care of the children. The need for jobs, livelihoods, and a sense of meaning in life is great.
32-year-old Sharada Chaudhari lives in the community of ex-bonded labour in the village of Gauriganga with her two children. Sharada is a power figure in her village and the leader of a local women’s group. She was chosen for the task because she was the only woman in the village who could read, and also because she received support from her husband. For the past four years, Sharanda’s husband has worked in a furniture factory in Malaysia.
”Not all men want their spouses to be away from home a lot. In my role as group leader, I meet lots of people, and it makes me happy,” she says.
With her husband working abroad, the support of the community and her family is especially important. Sharada’s daughter helps with household chores such as cooking when Sharada needs to work elsewhere.
Finn Church Aid supports the rights and livelihood opportunities of ex bonded labour in Nepal. The Finn Church Aid project is supporting women’s savings groups and co-operatives, and educates people on matters such as agriculture. In addition to livelihoods, the project has provided people with meaning in their lives and reinforced their sense of community.
Drought poses a challenge for farmers
Late spring is hot in western Nepal. In Kailali district, the temperature rises above 40°C on a daily basis, and drought complicates life in rural areas before the start of the monsoon in June-July. As a result of climate change, the rains do not always come on time these days, but the region was hot even before.
Drought is not the only problem in the region. Not all members of the community have been able to register their plot of land. Life without land means insecurity and diminished opportunities for things such as increasing the amount of crops.
The livelihoods from agriculture ensures food for the family and education for the children, but the repercussions are significant in other ways as well. Jagat Kumari Kathariya is self-employed, running a small teashop selling food she prepares herself.
”I used to be unemployed, but now I’m self-employed, and it makes me happy. Nowadays, even other villagers respect me because I’m a businesswoman.”
For now, Jagat also works on her own plot of land, but she hopes to increase her business so that she wouldn´t have to do any other work. She also wants to use the profits to secure a good education for her daughters, 5 and 7 years old.
”I’m no longer afraid of anything, and people respect me,” says Jagat.
Text: Noora Pohjanheimo
Translation: Leena Vuolteenaho
Photos: Tatu Blomqvist