In celebration of #GivingTuesday, all NYF donations made between November 28, 2023 and December 5, 2023 are eligible for a dollar-for-dollar match—up to $20,000.
Celebrating 10 years of the end of Kamlari!
On June 27, 2013, Nepal’s legislature officially abolished the kamlari practice: a system in which members of the Tharu ethnic minority in Western Nepal sold their daughters (some as young as five years old) into indentured servitude in the homes of Nepal’s elite. The practice, built on a foundation of predatory lending, ethnic oppression, and generational debt, robbed tens of thousands of young women of educational opportunities, cultural connection, and their childhood.
NYF successfully eradicated the practice in Nepal. We empowered young Tharu women to advocate for themselves, improve the lives of their families, and support a better future for their communities.
We concluded the program in 2020, but our partnership with the Freed Kamlari Development Forum (a local nonprofit, led by former kamlaris, that NYF helped to build) continues to this day.
It’s been 10 years since the legal abolishment of Kamlari indentured servitude, so we wanted to observe the anniversary of this incredible accomplishment by taking a quick look back…
Check out recent stories highlighting freed Kamlari women:
- September 18, 2019: Freed Kamlari Development Forum (FKDF) inaugurates new headquarters!
- September 11, 2020: Tharu Leaders Transforming their Communities in Nepal
- September 15, 2020: Former Kamlari women supports communities during COVID-19
- January 14, 2021: Highlights from an external study on the impact of our 20-year efforts to empower young women impacted by the kamlari practice.
- March 5, 2021: Bishnu Chaudhary passes bar exam, becoming first Freed Kamlari lawyer
- June 24, 2021: Lila Tharu, former Kamlari, is a frontline warrior, saving lives during COVID-19
- January 19, 2023: Former Kamlaris Propose Industrial Tailoring Course
Only 23 years ago, our team was just arriving in the Western Terai to learn about the kamlari system and its place in Tharu society. The practice was so entrenched, and so accepted, within these communities that it was difficult to imagine the work it would take to eradicate the system entirely. We started by freeing a handful of girls, and charged forward from there.
Thirteen years later, in June 2013, Nepal’s government formally abolished the practice, and added annual funding to the country’s budget that would provide scholarships and support to the women and girls whose childhoods had been impacted. NYF’s tireless, creative work within the Tharu communities had rapidly taken the kamlari system from an accepted, expected, open-air practice to one seen as exploitative and unacceptable by everyone in the villages.
Now, 10 years after the kamlari practice was abolished, NYF is tackling another massive, entrenched social issue: Nepal’s caste system. Using our success in the Western Terai as a guide, our Caste Equality Project will work within Dalit (formerly known as “untouchable”) communities to empower children and families to dismantle the oppressive systems around them.
We hope you will join us.
Industrial Tailoring at Olgapuri Vocational School
Industrial Tailoring has quickly become one of Olgapuri Vocational School’s most popular courses for women. The average monthly wage for our graduates is 30,000 rupees per month ($260), with room to grow. Those with more experience are making as much as 45,000 rupees ($390)—over three times Nepal’s minimum wage!
Over the past year, our team has had conversations with uneasy supporters about our new Industrial Tailoring vocational training course, which is held exclusively for women.
We’re hearing two main concerns:
- “Sewing is traditionally undervalued as ‘women’s work’. Shouldn’t we be trying to encourage young women to break free of these sorts of industries, rather than continuing this pattern?”
- “Isn’t the garment / textile industry particularly dangerous and exploitative? I don’t want my donations to go towards placing these bright young women into sweatshops!”
Maybe you’ve had similar concerns! In fact, people on the global team and on the board have discussed these same worries. At NYF, we deeply appreciate how thoughtful our supporters are, and how engaged you are in looking out for the children and youth we serve.
Our Commitment to Women’s Empowerment
First and foremost, our global team is committed to empowering women to follow their dreams. This is especially the case when their options are limited because of entrenched gender roles and hierarchies. We believe every girl and every woman should be free and safe to choose her own destiny!
We’re also appalled by the conditions within many of the world’s factories—not just garment factories. No one on our team wants to see any one of our beneficiaries trapped in an oppressive, unsafe working environment.
All Olgapuri Vocational School courses are openly advertised as available for all genders. At the orientation presentations where young people are given application options, women are always strongly encouraged to apply. Some of the instructors for these courses are women, giving potential students clear evidence that women are welcome.
However, despite all this, NYF has struggled to interest young women in signing up for these opportunities. As a result, enrollment in these programs is overwhelmingly male (a staggering 90%).
Our team has been working for several years to understand this phenomenon and to provide good solutions. Young women know they are welcome to apply for these courses in male-dominated career fields.
But many of these young women still don’t feel safe in those industries.
NYF can place female construction graduates in positions where we know they will be hired, paid equitably, and respected by their employers. Unfortunately, we can’t guarantee that they will not experience sexual harassment and other sexist aggression in the workplace.
Many young women don’t want to walk that challenging path, even if it pays more. They just want to make a decent living, gaining personal economic freedom without entering a career where conditions simply won’t feel safe for them as women. We can’t fault them for that.
Former Kamlaris Propose Industrial Tailoring Course
Olgapuri Vocational School’s Industrial Tailoring course was proposed by a group of former kamlaris. This initial group of young women met one another in a women’s empowerment group run by the Former Kamlaris Development Forum (FKDF). (The FKDF is a community-based nonprofit NYF helped found in the Tharu communities impacted by the traditional kamlari practice.)
In a group discussion, several of these women shared that they wished NYF offered a course in Industrial Tailoring. It seemed strange to them that this course wasn’t available. After all, they reasoned: clothing is one of Nepal’s biggest exports, and the job market in this area is growing. Careers in this field are stable, well-paying, and have room for growth and flexibility.
Even knowing that women were encouraged to apply for the construction training programs, some of these women almost felt left out by OVS because we weren’t offering trainings in the career fields most likely to attract female engagement.
The freedom to choose among a set of only male-dominated options just didn’t feel like real freedom.
Fortunately, these empowered young women knew they could ask NYF directly about such an option. They also had a growing group of women behind them who all agreed they’d leap at the chance to earn their certifications in Industrial Tailoring.
When this group approached NYF, our team let them know the common concerns about workplace dangers in the garment industry. The young women responded that construction trades are also dangerous. They all knew someone who had experienced an electrical accident or been injured by a power tool. And as far as exploitation was concerned, these young women had already survived kamlari bondage. They know better than most that bad actors exist in all industries.
Thanks to NYF and the FKDF, though, they also possess the extraordinary inner tools that empower them to defend themselves from exploitation—and motivate them to defend their sisters as well.
Their request was so powerful and enthusiastic that our team had to find a way to provide this opportunity.
NYF’s team made connections with local high-quality garment factories known for their fair practices and safe working conditions. They asked for their guidance in creating an ideal classroom and for help developing a specialized curriculum. These experts shared a list of skills all their employees needed to master, as well as a list of “dream skills” that made tailors especially competitive in the workforce.
Being highly skilled in a trade is a major safeguard against exploitation in any industry. This is because it allows workers the flexibility to seek out better workplaces without risking financial ruin.
Our team designed a six-month course which would prepare trainees to create high-quality garments for local consumption as well as for international export. Importantly, the training also includes the information needed for a student to establish her own small clothing business.
The curriculum covers industrial machine operation and maintenance, different kinds of stitches and their uses, measurement skills, fabric types and their uses, clothing design principles, and how to take items from printed designs to fabric cutting to assembly and through to the finishing touches. Safety is always an important topic as well.
Trainees are given specialized life skills and group therapy sessions (and, where needed, personal therapy as well) through NYF’s Ankur Counseling Center.
They also participate in motivational sessions on women’s empowerment!
During the entire six-month course, trainees live in the Olgapuri Girls’ Hostel. This is a space created especially for young women in vocational training courses (many of whom are not familiar with city life) so they can feel safe and secure during their training.
The first four months of the training consist of classroom instruction, followed by two months of paid On-the-Job training in one of the city’s high-quality factories. This is a paid apprenticeship period, with pay being nearly double Nepal’s minimum wage.
Meena Kumari Chaudhary (left, Asst. Trainer) is a former kamlari—and she was also one of the earliest graduates of our Industrial Training program! She’s thrilled to be using the skills she learned here to empower more women to enter this growth industry.
Here, she is pictured with Lead Trainer Anju Thapa. Both women have become role models for the young women hoping to build a sustainable career in tailoring!
Unfortunately, sweatshops do exist in Nepal. These cramped factories regularly ignore laws and regulations, have extremely poor and unsafe working conditions, and have unscrupulous bosses who demand inhumane working hours and withhold pay. NYF would never partner with these organizations, let alone intentionally place a trainee in such a working environment.
Kathmandu is also home to factories where workers are treated fairly, paid well, and conduct their work in well-lit, airy spaces that are kept tidy, with wide paths for evacuating in an emergency, ensuring safety for everyone. These are the workplaces our graduates enter, as a group of empowered women determined to build their futures—and continue working towards a more equitable world.
Bindu* has survived horrific ordeals over the past two years. During the COVID pandemic, she started dating an older man, against her parents’ wishes. Soon, this man convinced her to run away with him to start a new life in India. Dreaming of a beautiful future, Bindu followed him across the border. Bindu quickly learned that the man’s intention all along had been to traffic her.
Betrayed and heartbroken, Bindu relied on her inner strength to survive her situation—and she somehow managed to escape her captor and return to Nepal.
But the nightmare wasn’t over. When Bindu finally reached her home village, her parents rejected and disowned her.
Fortunately, Bindu found an organization working with women who have survived sex trafficking, and they helped her file a case against the man who trafficked her. Thanks to Bindu’s courage, he’s now in prison, where he can’t hurt any more girls and women.
Bindu found housing in a women’s shelter in Kathmandu as she prepared for her next steps. One of the staff members there heard about NYF’s new Industrial Tailoring program—and immediately thought of Bindu.
Bindu has taken to the Industrial Tailoring skillset extraordinarily well. For the first time since she ran away from home with a heart full of hope, Bindu feels like her dreams are truly within reach.
“I never thought I’d be able to acquire a skill that would pay me this much,” she says, adding, “Economic independence is very important to me, as I have no family to support me. The work environment is also safe and pleasant. The other girls and women that I work with have become like my family—and my greatest support system. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet them and work with them.”
A long waiting list…
In the first year of its existence, the Industrial Tailoring course quickly became one of OVS’s most sought-after options. Our team has already trained 149 women—and there’s a long waiting list. Most of these women are former kamlaris from western Nepal, but we’ve also received numerous referrals from Kathmandu women’s shelters and other aid organizations. This training has already empowered single mothers, survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and women who have escaped trafficking.
We are so grateful for the support that allows us to offer these women this remarkable opportunity. We hope to be able to continue offering it as long as young women are interested.
The Empowering Freed Kamlaris program is one of NYF’s greatest achievements. For more information on the former kamlaris and the FKDF, please visit https://nyf.news/efk
Frontline Warrior: NYF’s Lila Tharu Celebrates Freedom Day by Saving Lives
Frontline warrior healthcare workers across the world have spent nearly 18 months battling COVID-19 to defend their communities. These heroes have saved countless lives during the pandemic.
For one of these warriors, Lila Tharu, age 26 (below), her status as a nurse and midwife is a source of particular satisfaction. NYF is proud to count Lila among our many accomplished alumni now to heal their communities during this crisis.
Kamlari Freedom Day
June 27th, 2021 marks the 8th anniversary of the legal abolition of the kamlari practice in Nepal—otherwise known as Kamlari Freedom Day.
Kamlari was a form of indentured servitude which exploited the daughters of the Tharu ethnic minority group in Western Nepal’s Terai region. After generations of predatory lending by more powerful “land-owning” groups, the practice emerged as the only way for families to pay back exorbitant generational debts.
At every Tharu New Year, parents sold their daughters—some as young as six years old—to work long hours in the homes of strangers. In return, families would receive an average of only $30 for an entire year of their child’s labor. Thousands of Tharu girls spent their entire childhoods in kitchen slavery. Some never returned home.
To people in the Western Terai, the kamlari practice had come to seem inevitable. It was a baked-in cultural truth that very few people dared to question.
Lila Tharu – Kamlari Life, Rescue & Education
Lila was born in Thakurbaba Municipality in Bardiya District. When she was 12, Lila was sent away to work as a kamlari in 2005. Her two older sisters had also worked as kamlaris.
After two years working in her master’s house and being denied an education, Lila was identified and rescued by Nepal Youth Foundation in 2007. Through the Indentured Daughters program, her family was provided with economic support to offset Lila’s lost “wage.” It also included the materials needed to allow Lila to return to school: a kerosene lamp to study by, a school uniform, notebooks, and more.
Lila was a determined student who dreamed of becoming a midwife. Soon after her rescue, she enrolled in grade 7 at a local school. She completed high school (10th grade at the time in Nepal) in 2012, passing her country’s notorious SLC “Iron Gate” exam. Lila earned a place in the Auxiliary Nurse Midwife program at Sushma Koirala Memorial Institute in Nepalgunj. NYF provided her with a college scholarship throughout her studies.
NYF continued to provide career support as Lila began her nursing career in a private hospital in Banke District. And in November 2016, she finally landed her dream job as an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife at Bheri Hospital in Nepalgunj, the largest government hospital in the region. She has remained there ever since, continuing her education by taking Nursing Care and Skilled Birth Attendant trainings to further enhance her skills.
The salary she brings home each month is far beyond what members of the Tharu community thought possible for one of their daughters only 10 to 20 years ago. Not only is Lila serving a critical role in her community’s health system—she is proving the incredible potential within a Tharu girl.
Lila Tharu – Frontline Warrior
At the beginning of 2020, Lila was living at home with her mother while continuing her career. Lila’s father had passed away years before, and her two sisters were now married.
Things changed in Lila’s work life when the pandemic hit. She was added to a special COVID treatment team early on and assigned temporarily to nearby Sushil Koirala Cancer Hospital in Khajura. This hospital had been set aside especially for COVID patients. Lila worked there for several weeks during the pandemic’s first wave. She also served COVID patients in mandated isolation in a Kalpatri hotel during this time.
Now, during Nepal’s intense second COVID wave, Lila’s hospital in Nepalgunj is at the epicenter of the crisis. Many young people from Western Nepal cross the border into India to find work. When the virus surged in India earlier this year, they fled back north to escape the pandemic—not realizing they were bringing the virus home with them.
Bheri Hospital now has four dedicated COVID wards. Lila (below, in white at far right), who has valuable COVID Care experience from 2020, is a frontline warrior in one of them.
She is hard at work monitoring her patients’ vital signs, measuring oxygen levels, and providing intravenous therapy and medicine, as well as other critical care. COVID death rates for hospitalized patients are frighteningly high everywhere, and Lila’s ward is no different. During this second surge, they have lost an average of 3-4 patients per day. But Lila tries to remember the lives she has helped to save as well. Many of her surviving patients would not be able to return home if not for her.
In spite of rigorous safety protocols, Lila herself caught COVID in the spring, like many other frontline warriors across the world. Fortunately, her symptoms were mild. After a short isolation, she returned courageously to the COVID ward to continue her lifesaving work.
She will continue this work until her expertise is no longer required in the COVID ward. She (below, preparing medicines for a patient) is proud to be doing this important work in her community—and grateful to the NYF Community for making her journey possible.
Just One Story of Thousands
Lila says she was afraid when the virus first arrived in Nepal. But now, she is extremely dedicated to the community she serves. Her courage is nothing new to NYF.
Like the other Freed Kamlari women, Lila had already experienced intense hardship and taken many daring steps before COVID arrived. Together, while most of them were still children, these girls dared to challenge their communities, abandon their masters, question their culture, and declare their own worth. Many of them returned home to families who resented them for taking such bold steps. Others were injured while marching for kamlari freedom, as police objected to the girls’ protests against the government.
Lila is one of thousands of Freed Kamlari who refused to stop simply at being rescued from an exploitative practice.
She and so many others have claimed their personal power by seizing educational opportunities and chasing their dreams – and working to lift their sisters and daughters in the process. Some are becoming lawyers, determined to defend human rights. Others have become small business owners or specialized farmers, gradually building personal and generational wealth in ways their parents could not.
And some, like Lila Tharu, dreamed of helping others in the healthcare field. They’ve grown up to be frontline warriors in a global crisis they never imagined.
Happy Kamlari Freedom Day, Lila!
Happy Freedom Day to ALL of the Freed Kamlaris
and to the young girls and women who will never be bonded away!
And Happy Freedom Day to the NYF Community—to everyone who helped support this incredible program. Lila’s story, and so many others like it, are proof of the amazing way your #LoveWorks.
Celebrate with NYF today.
To help celebrate this joyous occasion and support the education of brave young women like Lila, please make a thoughtful gift for NYF Scholarships or our Vocational Education program on our donation page. Additionally, join the NYF Community by signing up to receive emails here.