Kamlari is a historically accepted social custom among the indigenous Tharu community in Nepal, in which poor families contract out their daughters into bonded labor. While the practice is now technically illegal, an estimated 20,000 Kamlari girls are still living as indentured laborers. Room to Read's Girls' Education program is one of the many levers of change being used to help free these girls and provide them with access to a quality education. Anita and Anju Tharu are two such girls.
Winter in the flatlands of Bardiya can be quite unpredictable, especially when hanging laundry outside on the line. As sisters Anita and Anju found out, when you hang your clothes out to dry, the weather might not cooperate. On a cold morning recently, Anita rushed to school wearing a blue skirt, a blue shirt and a blue sweater—the ubiquitous school uniform in Nepali schools. Once in class, she spread out her skirt and sat on the driest part. Anita had argued with her mother that morning about attending school in damp clothes. She diligently sat near the hearth, waved her skirt about in the air, and hoped and prayed her skirt would be dry enough to attend class. She had succeeded.
Her older sister, Anju, wasn’t so lucky and had to skip school that day. “I’d take school over staying home any day,” said Anju. “I’m wondering what my sister is doing right now. Maybe she’s studying. Yes, I know she is. She frets about missing her lessons. I bet she’s even completing assignments in new chapters!” she exclaimed in envy.
It all started with a fight that landed their father in jail. With the family's main breadwinner unable to support them, Anita and Anju's mother, Rama Tharu, made an extremely difficult and painful choice: she asked her daughters to drop out of school. As their education came to an abrupt halt, their lives as Kamlaris—or bonded laborers—began. Gone were the days of careless mischief, or running around in the fields and coming home from school and finding a hot meal waiting for them. Those days were to be replaced by endless hours of chores, including caring for children who were not much older than them. At the time they left school to become Kamlari workers, Anju was just 11 years old and Anita was 10.
“Seeing my daughters go was the hardest blow," says Rama. "Suddenly I was all alone.” Her days without her two daughters were lonely. “Those two years were the slowest years I’ve ever faced. I would work through the entire day, plowing fields and doing any other manual labor that came my way.”
Since her husband was in jail, local work was hard to find. The community around her stigmatized Rama and her family, forcing her to commute longer distances to find work. Nevertheless, she prevailed and vowed to make her daughters stop working as soon as she could afford to do so. Her hope resurfaced when the
Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation (NYOF), a Room to Read partner organization, started a campaign to end the Kamlari pratha, or system. With their assistance, and after two long years of constant labor, Anita and Anju were finally rescued and brought back home.
“Homecoming was great,” remembers Anju. “We hadn't had the chance to see each other much during the past two years and when we finally got to see each other, it was something else. We all cried sweet tears of joy.” That night, Rama and her daughters sat down in their small kitchen, made a fire and cooked up their first homemade meal together in years.
Through Room to Read’s partnership with NYOF and the Girl's Education program, Anita and Anuj were able to re-enroll in school. Being selected for the program meant that the girls could continue their studies and focus on their education, forever ending their lives at Kamlari workers. Both of the girls are attending Shree Tribhuwan Higher Secondary School, where Anita is now in 5th grade and Anju is in 7th grade. Anita dreams of becoming a business owner. “As soon as I am able to do so,” she says, “I want to help my mother so that we don’t have to struggle financially anymore.” Anju wants to study for as long as possible and ensure she can do it well. “I had never thought that I’d be able to go to school again. Now that I have the chance I want to utilize it well,” she says.