Female Lawyers – A New Milestone for the Freed Kamlari Community
Female lawyers hold a special place in my heart—especially those embarking on this challenging career in a time and place in which women are not always welcome.
For those who do not know me, welcome! I am Olga Murray, the founder of Nepal Youth Foundation. Since the mid-1980s, I have dedicated my life to helping the children of Nepal to achieve their dreams. The work is an incomparable joy! Many of these kids’ successes have absolutely astonished me.
I have recently learned from Som that Bishnu Chaudhary has passed the bar exam in Nepal. This makes her the first Freed Kamlari to become a lawyer.
Bishnu’s father sold her into kamlari bondage when she was ten years old. Initially, he needed her wages to pay off a debt of under $40 (at the current rate of exchange), and later to assure that he could continue to work as a farmer for her employer. If she had stopped working, her family would have been left with no land to farm—and no way to feed themselves.
As a kamlari servant, Bishnu was denied an education and was instead forced to spend her childhood working long hours doing laundry, dishes, housework, and other tasks assigned by her family’s landlord. It was hard, demeaning work in an unforgiving environment. This was no place for a child.
(You can learn more about the kamlari practice, and NYF’s response, here.)
Rescue & Education
NYF rescued Bishnu from kamlari bondage in 2004, as our Indentured Daughters program (later the Empowering Freed Kamlari program) began to take root in the impacted Tharu communities.
She wanted desperately to go to school, and though her father at first refused, the teachers at the local school convinced him to allow her to enroll. Bishnu proved to be an outstanding student throughout her school years, taking as many opportunities for growth and development as she could. NYF has proudly supported her education from the beginning. Bishnu was admitted to law school in Kathmandu and graduated last year (pictured above).
During her student years, Bishnu was an outspoken and passionate leader in opposing the practice of kamlari, leading rescue operations of indentured children and convincing parents not to send their daughters away. She even risked being expelled from school because she insisted on liberating kamlari who were working for her own headmaster and teachers. Now that’s courage!
At Maghe Sankranti 2020, before the pandemic, Bishnu’s local government presented her with an award for the work she has done for her community (pictured left). I am gratified to see the ways these women, once mistreated and made to feel worthless, are being recognized and honored for their remarkable achievements.
Bishnu has continued in her activism, providing counseling and advice for former kamlari. Her aim is to advocate for girls and women in all aspects of the law – a tall order in Nepal, where paternalism reigns supreme.
A New Milestone
Female lawyers are a new phenomenon for Bishnu’s ethnic minority community, the Tharu. But Bishnu is just the first in the pipeline.
Up next is Urmila (left), the leader and heroine of the anti-kamlari movement, who was indentured at the age of six and did not begin school until she was 18, against the advice of almost everybody. Urmila is in her second year of law school and intends to work in the area of human rights, particularly women’s rights, after graduation.
How exciting to know Tharu women will have powerful female lawyers representing them in Nepal, and showing young girls what women can accomplish!
International Women’s Day 2021
I identify with these young women because, although I have never been sold into indentured servitude, I know the difficulty of embarking on a career in which women were not always welcome. I graduated from law school 66 years ago (gulp!), becoming a female lawyer at a time when there were few women in the profession, and the prospect of looking for a job was terrifying.
I was honored to spend my career in the company of those working to advance the rights of minorities in the United States. Below, I stand with my colleagues as a research attorney for California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk.
International Women’s Day, now held on March 8th, has been celebrated since 1911, when it was organized in Europe. Women then were campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, hold public office, and end discrimination. Other early causes involved labor legislation about safety standards and child labor, combatting violence against women, and agitation for peace.
Now, this day is an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness about women’s equality, and lobby for change.
The International Women’s Day theme in 2021 is “Choose to Challenge”—something the NYF Family has been doing for over 30 years, and something the Freed Kamlaris have done with gusto.
The work isn’t finished—but change is coming, one milestone at a time.
Today, for the Freed Kamlari communities, Bishnu, Urmila, and other daring women are choosing to challenge the status quo in their countries. I have full confidence that both Bishnu and Urmila will succeed in their goal to improve the status of women in Nepal because of their determination, their smarts, and the lessons they learned in their struggles to overcome injustice.
Thank you for being here!
Learn more about how NYF makes real change possible in Nepal by visiting our programs page. Read our latest newsletters, and join NYF’s email list here — or be a part of the change and donate to NYF today.