October 11, 2017 3:38 pm JST

From household slavery to international activism

Young Nepalese bring their fight against child labor to Tokyo

SHOTARO TANI, Nikkei staff writer

A girl carries bricks at the brick factory where she lives and works with her family in Kathmandu. © Reuters

TOKYO -- Rajkumari Chaudhari was only 9 when she started working as a domestic helper for a wealthy family in the Kanchanpur District in the west of Nepal. Her father died when she was 5 and with the family struggling to make ends meet, she was sent out to work because it was one less mouth to feed.

Chaudhari was told at first that her only job would be to look after the wealthy family's children, but the reality was far different: All the household chores except the cooking were hers.

"I had to work 14 to 16 hours a day and was not allowed to go to school," said Chaudhari, now 23. "I would wake up very early in the morning to wash clothes, prepare vegetables for cooking and collect grass for livestock. Then I would serve the food, clean the house, take the master's children to school and do other chores. It was the same thing, day after day."

She received no pay for the grueling work. "A part of me died," Chaudhari said.

Her story is not uncommon in Nepal. In fact, there is a name for people like Chaudhari: kamlari. Kamlari is a type of indentured servitude in which girls from poor families are sent to work in rich people's homes without pay. It is just one of the many hardships Nepalese girls face.

Chaudhari came to Japan at the invitation of Plan International, a nongovernmental organization, to mark the United Nations' International Day of the Girl Child on Oct. 11. She wants to raise people's awareness of the plight of girls in Nepal. 

Kamlari was banned by the government in 2013, but there are still said to be more than 300 kamlaris in Nepal. According to the International Labor Organization, 1.6 million Nepalese children between the ages of 5 and 17, 20.6% of the total, are engaged in some form of child labor. Girls make up well over half the total, at 910,000.

Seeing young girls working in harsh conditions prompted Asuma Basnet, 19, who was also in Tokyo, to set up a club for child education in her community.

"Whenever I used to pass by brick factories on my way to school, I would see the children working in bad conditions, especially girls," she said. Basnet noticed how the factory owners preferred girls to boys because they were more obedient and less likely to run away. "I just thought I had to help them."

Asuma Basnet, left, speaks at an event in Tokyo as former child laborer Rajkumari Chaudhari looks on. (Photo courtesy of Taro Kanaizuka, Plan International)

As president of the club, she went door to door visiting factory owners and other employers of child laborers to find how many were her working in her community and under what conditions. She also worked with municipalities to send out warning letters to people who hire children. "I would often be threatened," she recalled. They were "telling us to leave them alone, or else."

Long fight ahead

Despite a string of regulations banning the hiring of children under the age of 18, child labor remains rampant in Nepal. Rajani Khadka, who works for Plan International in Nepal, said child labor is shifting from households to service industries such as hotels and transport. Employers try to hide child workers when the authorities conduct house searches. When they are discovered, the children often claim they are over 18, even when it is obvious they are not.

Khadka pointed out that people in high-status positions -- doctors, lawyers, TV personalities -- often employ child labor, creating a sense in society that there is nothing wrong with the practice.

"I and my group of ex-kamlaris once rescued a girl from a famous TV journalist in Nepal," Chaudhari said. "Whenever I see these kinds of cases, it is disheartening, frustrating."

Kamlari and other types of child labor are also a consequence of poverty: 25.2% Nepalese live below the national poverty line. Child labor is an important source of income for many poor families.

Both Basnet and Chaudhari, who are working in their communities to raise the status of girls through Plan International's Girls Leadership program, believe education is the key to solving the problem of child labor. That is backed up by the data. A 2016 report by UNESCO estimates that achieving universal high school education by 2030 in low-income countries would lift their per capita income by 75% by 2050.

"I think the community and the government must provide proper education, not only to the children but the parents, too," Basnet said. "Parents who are educated can only [lead to] children [being] educated."

Chaudhari agreed. "Education is very important. Proper knowledge about the consequences and negative effects of child labor should be spread among the parents, and quality education for children should be ensured as well."

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