“I want to lead a worthwhile life, and I know for sure that my education will take me places,” says 15-year-old Phulmati Tharu, but her future hasn’t always looked so bright.
At the age of eight, Phulmati was forced to leave the second grade, her family and everything else she’d ever known to enter a new life as an indentured servant for a family wealthier than hers in a village far away. She spent four long years as a Kamlari—an illegal but culturally accepted practice in some parts of Nepal by which parents enter a contract to have their daughters work as bonded laborers. As a servant in Nepalgunj for a family of five she was expected to work around the clock, leaving no time to attend school. “Those were indeed dark days,” she says.
Then, in 2008, Phulmati received some very good news. The local government and several nonprofits in the area were cracking down on indentured servitude and called back hundreds of girls working as Kamlari. “Coming back home after four arduous years of labor was a memorable moment,” says Phulmati of her return. “I recall walking down the lane to my house and seeing all of my family members who had gathered to welcome me back.”
After her rescue, Phulmati was accepted into Room to Read’s Girls’ Education program, and immediately began an intensive bridge course to help her catch up to grade level. She finished the bridge course, which normally takes 6-9 months to complete, in just four months—driven to use her second chance in school to create a better life for herself.
“One day when I was working as a Kamlari in Nepalgunj,” she recalls, “I had to do all the grocery shopping and felt ashamed that I couldn’t do simple addition.” She believed she had been shortchanged, but couldn’t be sure. “At that moment,” says Phulmati, ”I realized how important education was, and made up my mind that if I should ever go to school again, I would make the best of that opportunity.”
Now a seventh grader at Shree Prithivi Lower Secondary School, Phulmati has become a dedicated student and avid reader. “I was devoid of the company of the books for four years,” she says. “Our school now has a beautiful library with scores of books that have helped me a lot to progress in my studies.”
And that’s not all that has changed in her life. Phulmati says her family now supports her 100 percent in pursuing her education. Two years ago, when her school partnered with Room to Read’s School Construction program to add more classrooms, her brother was first in line to volunteer labor to the project.
“He dedicated most of his time to constructing the new building, even though he had other commitments,” she recalls. “He said that no sister of his belongs in a school without decent buildings.”