Faint Hope For Nepal’s Child Slaves


Tanang says he is 12 but looks younger. He doesn’t know if
his parents are alive, but since he gets a 2-hour break from his
12-14 hour workday to attend school he can consider himself among
the luckiest child slaves in Nepal. 

is a domestic child laborer. They generally come to Kathmandu from
rural areas, after a relative or broker has arranged a home for
them. In exchange for their long days of dishwashing, water fetching,
and kitchen work, their hosts give them food and shelter and pay
about five or six dollars per month to their parents. Nabin’s
parents are unknown, so his employers pay nothing. Credible estimates
say there are between 20,000 and 30,000 domestic child laborers
in Kathmandu, a city of just over one  million. 

children generally work every day, don’t attend school, and
see their parents once a year or less until around age 14 when they
are sent home or released into Kathmandu without money, skills,
or education. According to activists working with them, on release,
the boys are easily exploitable by people offering apprenticeships
and the girls often fall prey to traffickers selling them into the
sex trade. 

activists say the prevalence of child labor in Nepal is as much
due to the society’s feudal nature and caste system as it is
to poverty. Changing a social mentality, which does not object to
children working for little or no pay, they say, will be more difficult
than their current projects of providing the children with a basic
education, an understanding of their rights, and,  legal inter

South Asia child labor is relatively common, but in Nepal—a
small, poor, and young country—about 10 percent of the population
are working children. “The eradication of child labor is not
possible,” says Bijaya Sainju, head of Concern, an advocacy
group. “If you suggested it, the community would say you were
crazy.” Instead he says they champion better working conditions
and interventions in situations where there is severe abuse or harassment
and thus stronger community support. 

Tanang is a student at a free program run by Children- Women in
Social Service & Human Rights (CWISH.) With his guardians’
permission, he can attend school two hours a day for nine months
in a program teaching reading, writing, and English. 

program is designed to feed them into the regular school system,
though this requires fees and permission from their “guardians.”
Milan Dharal, who works at the organization, says parents often
use school fees (or even CWISH’s program) as an excuse not
to pay the children’s families—rural, often illiterate
peasants—to whom they are essentially unaccountable. 

the difficulties of their lives, the children and their “owners”
both say they are better off in Kathmandu than in the rural villages.
In Kathmandu, both sides say, there is plumbing, television, and
at least the promise of opportunity, though employers often falsely
lead their charges to believe that they are on the path to a comfortable
life with a job as a bureaucrat or skilled laborer. One of Tanang’s
classmate’s Sangeeta Chowdury, 12, has worked in Kathmandu
for a year. She says she often fights with her owner’s son
who she says never works. Despite the long days and no pay she studies
hard; she wants to be a doctor, she says quietly, perhaps aware
of the odds against her. 

asked about Sangeeta’s dream, her guardian Maiya Poudyal chuckled.
“I’m not convinced,” she said. “But I’ll
support her learning to read.” A group of such guardians laughed
and nodded their agreement. These were “good employers,”
a member of CWISH said. They had not only sent their children to
the school program, but had agreed to meet with a reporter to discuss
the situation. All were happy with their laborers’ work, though
Nabin and others said they had been beaten at home and received
treatment inferior to their guardians’ natural children. 

2002, after a six-year legal battle, the organization Child Workers
in Nepal (CWIN) won a case for a domestic worker who had been kept
in chains at his owner’s house. Since then, there have been
a trickle of legal victories and out-of-court settlements in similarly
abusive situations. But Sumnima Tuladhar, the group’s program
coordinator, said it was barely progress.  

the current system, she said, the children’s “owners have
the right to abuse and exploit them.” Indeed the major danger
of child domestic work is that, except for the few hundred at school,
the children are invisible to the outside world and therefore subject
to physical, mental, and sexual abuse. “A lot goes on between
the four walls,” Tuladhar added. 

invisibility led the International Labor Organization to call domestic
work one of the seven worst forms of child labor in Nepal, along
with more overtly hazardous jobs in restaurants and stone quarries.

are few legal protections. While Nepal’s Child Act proscribes
work for children under 14, it does not mention domestic child labor.
Activists are calling for a more specific and enforceable law, but
until then, in legal battles, CWIN cites the United Nations Convention
on the Rights of the Child, to which Nepal is a party. The convention
guarantees a child’s (those under 18) right to education, play,
and protection from “economic exploitation and from performing
any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the
child’s education or to be harmful to the child’s health
or physical, mental, spiritual, moral, or social development.” 

the consensus among child advocates, Sumnima Tuladhar does not expect
major changes soon. The Nepalese government has never been known
for efficiency, she says, and the current Maoist insurrection absorbs
much of their resources, time, and excuses. 

most people with child laborers belong to the elite Brahmin caste,
the National Human Rights Commission has suggested a statute that
would ban government workers from having child laborers, a gesture
designed to set an example. In December, Bimal Koirala, Nepal’s
chief cabinet secretary, said the statute was at the ministry level
and would be signed “soon.” It had not been at the time
of this writing in late January. 

Pyakurel, a member of the commission, was less optimistic. He said
government employees were satisfied with their child workers and
disinclined to give them up. The government, he says, has to take
more initiative. Disagreeing with other activists who say child
labor was an intrinsic part of Nepalese society, he says child labor
isn’t Nepal’s culture, but added, “We’re making
it the culture now.”

Alex Halperin
is a freelance reporter based in New Delhi.