Former Kamlari women take charge of their futures

After years of working in a centuries-old system of slavery, these women are building better lives for their families

Seetashma Thapa
Aug 30, 2018 · 5 min read

With generous funding from the United States Government (USG) through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in partnership with the Government of Nepal is working on a community garden project, where cooperatives oversee the production of fresh food for school children in Bardiya.

Understanding Nepal’s Kamlari System

Since the 1700s, young girls from the Terai belt in mid and far western Nepal have been forced to work as indentured labourers known as Kamlaris. Their families in the region have lived in extreme poverty for generations, and it became a tradition for them to send their daughters to work for wealthy families. Girls as young as five were forced into a life of labour and were denied a childhood and an education. They lived in harsh conditions, faced years of abuse and were paid as little as US$ 50 per year.

After years of injustice, in 2017, the Government of Nepal banned this system of slavery and made it a crime to employ Kamlaris under these conditions. But today Kamlari women are facing another struggle: how to re-build their lives and support their families.

Empowering women from single headed households

Shaktinagar village in Bardiya is home to more than 120 former Kamlari households. They are all members of Shree Milan Cooperative, which is funded by WFP. The cooperative offers Kamlari women a platform to address socio-economic issues, earn an income and start new lives.

Juna Tharu is a 27-year-old mother of two and an active member of the Shree Milan Cooperative. While her husband works in Kathmandu as a day wage labourer, she invests her time in the community garden.

Juna is not the only person whose husband works far from home; most of her friends share a similar fate. Together, these women toil in the field and grow vegetables for their families to eat. They currently produce enough food to sell what is leftover to schools and at markets. This enables them to earn an income.

“We grow carrots, cucumbers, cauliflower, lady finger, pumpkin, spinach, bitter guard and all seasonal vegetables. Each one us make around US$ 80–100 a month by selling vegetables,” says Juna. “We also sell produce to schools, so our children can eat fresh, organic and nutritious meals,” she adds.

Improving children’s overall health and well-being

On the walls of Shaktinagar School, the weekly menu for the children is on display. The students now eat nutritious and well-balanced meals that are different every day.

“Because of the midday meals, enrollment has increased and attendance has been consistent,” says Ram Bahadur, the Headmaster of the school.

“I love Puri (bread) with vegetables,” said 6 year old Jamuna B.K, who studies in Grade 3 and lives with six other people at home.

Like her friend Jamuna, Anu also lives in a big family of five. “ I like coming to school. I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” she says.

School meals help students like Jamuna and Anu concentrate in class. They know that a delicious meal will be waiting for them during their lunch break.

Supporting the next generation

Juna, Shanti, Ram Pyari, Ram Maya and others from of Shree Milan Cooperative could never pursue their dreams while they worked as Kamlaris. Having undergone so many struggles, they want a different life for their girls.

“I have two girls who study in Grade 3 and Grade 5 in Shakti Primary School, and they do very well in school,” said Juna. “With the money I make from selling the vegetables, I ensure that my girls have all they need for school. I want them to make something of their lives,” she adds.

Similarly, Ram Pyari who is a mother of three girls says, “In our days we just worked like slaves for others. Now we want our daughters to be independent and take charge of their lives.”

The difference that school meals can make

As a part of the School Meals Programme, WFP supported the Department of Education in implementing the Community Gardening Project. The programme— support from the District Education Office, and through Shree Milan Cooperative — managed the implementation of the school meals programme in nine schools, benefiting 2,250 students, teachers, parents and school cooks.

The projects focused on:

· Identification and training of cooks, caterers or other food preparers

· Food quality and nutrition assurance

· Strengthening community involvement

· Linking the School Meals Programme to local producers

· Commodity Management, Nutrition and Food Preparation training

· Provision of standard SMP kitchen utensils

· Installation of energy efficient stoves

· And the development of nutrition sensitive recipes

Forging partnerships to reach Zero Hunger

WFP has recently engaged in a partnership with Partnership for Child Development, Imperial College London and the Centre of Education and Human Resource Development to undertake an operational research study to increase the nutritional intake through a home-grown school meals planner package.

Read more about WFP’s work in Nepal.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme