From a Slave to a Stitcher: The Kamlaris of Nepal

The producer of Fly My Damsel lingerie in Kathmandu, Sujha Traders & Exporters, employs especially former kamlari women. Who are the kamlaris? This is their story.

Background of the system

The southernmost region of Nepal is a fertile plain called Terai stretching south from the Himalayan foothills. Until the mid-1900's the Terai was sparsely populated and mostly covered with tropical jungle. High risk of malaria kept the Nepalese power elites away from the area. One of the groups who lived there were the Tharus, an ethnic group who were naturally resistant to malaria. Nepali rulers wanted to start cultivating the Terai area since 19th century, but it only started in 1950's after malaria had been eradicated from the area with the help of DDT. People from higher in the foothills started to settle the Terai in large quantities. The newcomers had better education, better knowledge of the political system, and better connections to officials, which helped them to take over the land. The Tharu ended up as their tenants or farm labourers.

Farm labourer's wage is very small and tenant farmers often ended in debt. The whole family may have had to survive with less than 200 euros per year. This was especially hard in families with many children, and kamlari system offered a way to relieve the burden. Kamlari system meant that the poor parents gave their daughter to work in another family for about 50 euros per year, thus making the same amount of money as a farm labourer made in 3 months and also saving the expenses of providing for the child. A kamlari girl worked for her employers for room and board and a small wage. Also the employers often promised to educate the girl. Kamlari contract lasted for one year at the time, after which the girl returned home if the contract was not renewed.

Life as a kamlari

The reality of kamlaris was very far from promises. Most kamlaris never attended school but they had to work for their employers from early morning till night. Room and board meant sleeping on the kitchen floor and eating leftovers; salary was by maximum a few dozen euros for the whole year; the risk of violence and sexual abuse was constant, and some kamlaris were forced to prostitution. The contract rarely ended with one year, because many employers didn't want to return the girl home voluntarily. In some families, women of several generations had spent their childhoods as kamlaris. In many cases the girl's family also never got the money that was promised for them for the girl.

Kamlari system was hidden from Nepali officials for a long time, even though it was openly practiced in some areas in Western Nepal. Poor and often illiterate parents had no means to demand their children back, and if the girl herself ran away and returned home, her family often wasn't able to provide for her any better than before. If she had gone to school before ending up as a kamlari, she often had difficulties in continuing her studies because of taeching that she had missed. Sometimes the only option was to return to work as a kamlari.

Freedom begins

Nepal Youth Foundation found out about the kamlari system in 2000, and started to act against it. Their staff started to look for kamlari girls, return them to their homes and support them in attending school. Together with the poor families they planned a financial support program which enabled the families to provide for their children and keep them at home. Vocational training was organised to freed kamlaris to help them provide for themselves. Nepal Youth Foundation organises education on several fields, of which the girls and young women can choose the one they want. Education is sewing is organised by Sujha Traders in their training center in Western Nepal. After a six-month initial training the former kamlaris are employed to Sujha Traders' factory in Kathmandu, which produces clothes not only for Fly My Damsel but for several other companies as well. There are currently about 100 employees in the factory, and 70 of them are stitchers.

Sujha Traders is part of Fair Trade Group Nepal, which in turn is a member of World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO), and follows the WFTO principles. Sujha employees can directly affect their own earnings. There are no strict timetables, and every stitcher can work at their own pace. They are paid a certain sum per garment which they negotiate with the factory administrators. This sum is counted so that it makes a living wage even for the less-experienced stitchers. The official minimum wage in Nepal is about 9000 rupees a month. However, living wage is considerably more: for an adult who provides for one child it is 12 500 rupees with the current price level. Sujha Traders pays at least 12 500 to all its employees, and the most experienced stitchers can earn as much as 20 000 rupees per month. Sujha Traders provides its employees also accommodation if needed and scholarships for their children. Also health care, paid holidays and sick leave are part of the deal, which is not customary in all workplaces in Nepal.

What has been achieved?

Nepal Youth Foundation has frees over 12 000 kamlari girls, and many of them have received professional education through Sujha Traders. Professional skills take them further than just Sujha Traders's factory. Many of their former employees who have moved away from Kathmandu for example because of getting married, have started their own tailoring businesses, which helps them to provide for their families. Some of those who moved away have returned because of the better standard of living offered by the work at Sujha Traders. The rise in the standard of living of the former kamlaris affects also their families in the countryside, since it is customary in Nepal to take care of those family members who are less well-off.

Along with freeing the kamlaris, Nepal Youth Foundation started an awareness campaign to make the system publicly known and have it prohibited. Former kamlaris were encouraged to take lead in this campaign. They started to tell about their experiences in public forums and discourage families from selling their daughters. Freed Kamlari Development Forum was founded in 2010 to coordinate their work. They were finally successful in 2013, when kamlari system was officially prohibited in Nepal. It is possible though, that the law alone is not enough to stop the system. Many Tharus and other groups still live in extreme poverty, which has made the kamlari system possible. After its prohibition, the exploitation of their poverty can easily find another form. This is why the work of Nepal Youth Foundation and Sujha Traders is still needed to eradicate poverty.