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On the trail of human trafficking: forced labor in Nepal

By Siddharth Kara
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Investigating forced labor in Nepal
  • Siddharth Kara is in Nepal investigating forced labor in caste-based systems
  • Kara focused much of the week on two classes of people -- the Badi and Kamaliri
  • Kara will travel to urban and rural regions in several south Asian countries

Editors Note: Harvard human trafficking fellow Siddharth Kara is undertaking a research trip around South Asia, looking at issues of forced labor, trafficking and child bondage. He will be getting access to the heart of the problem, and telling readers what he has discovered every week over the next ten weeks.

Nepalgunj, Nepal -- During the last week I explored two forms of caste-based forced labor in Nepal -- the Badi and the Kamaliri.

To reach the Badi villages, I traveled a few hours by jeep into the central foothills of Nepal, followed by an extended hike along a winding riverbed. The villages were among the most destitute I have seen in South Asia.

A candid Badi elder named "Chandrabir" explained their story to me.

"In the beginning, we were entertainers to upper-caste people," Chandrabir explained, "We were like beggars; they treated us like untouchables."

Eventually, due to poverty and displacement, the Badi turned to prostitution in order to earn income. For as long as anyone can remember, when a Badi girl reached puberty, she was sent into sex work. In the old days, this was just in her village for the locals, but as the decades passed, the "Badini" would work in transit towns, border towns, Kathmandu, and even India.

"There is increasing pressure to send new young girls into prostitution."
--Siddharth Kara

The practice was deeply stigmatized, and the Badi were eager to find alternatives. With the help of NGOs, the Badi tried to shed sex work across the last fifteen years. It has proved difficult for them to find alternatives, especially since they are deemed low-caste.

Some of the former Badi sex workers I met had returned to sex work, and there is increasing pressure to send new young girls into prostitution.

Traffickers understand these pressures well, and they regularly recruit new victims in the Badi villages I visited.

"Some of our girls have gone with agents who promise jobs in India, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar," Chandrabir explained, "But we have not heard from them in years."

To make matters worse, almost half of the Badi I met were suffering from severe health ailments. Borrowing money for medicine had put many into extended debt bondage.

The next group I researched was the Kamaliri. This is a practice of internal trafficking for domestic servitude primarily among the Tharu caste.

Traffickers go to Tharu villages with an offer for Kamaliri work for a young girl, usually age eight or nine. He transports that girl to a city for a family from an upper-caste group. They purchase the girl for the equivalent of fifteen to twenty dollars. The girl may also be sent for work at a hotel or a restaurant.

"They described working sixteen or more hours a day, seven days a week."
--Siddharth Kara

The Kamaliri girls I met were outright domestic slaves. They described working sixteen or more hours a day, seven days a week, with one week off each year to visit their parents. The hotel workers were particularly exploited.

As Kavita told me, "I woke at 2am to start my work, and I did not finish until 10pm." She was paid approximately $20 per year for three years before being rescued. In other cases, a few dollars per month may be sent to the Kamaliri parents as payment.

I also managed to interview several current Kamaliri workers alongside their "masters."

These were odd encounters to say the least. The masters were by and large decent people, and they described how this life was much better for a Tharu girl than starving in her village, or being trafficked into prostitution (they cited this example repeatedly!).

One Kamaliri girl, Sarita, was even going to school a few hours a day and was receiving beautician training, so that eventually she could have her own life.

One the one hand, it is difficult to argue that Sarita's life as a Kamaliri is not materially better than starving in her village.

However, all societies must find a way to educate their children and allow the poor to place a foot on the ladder of human development, without requiring them to forfeit a period of their lives to forced labor - nine years and counting for Sarita -- simply in order to survive.