Kamlari Shop Girl

Meredith May
Nepal / USA
Journalist Meredith May traveled to Nepal in 2009, where she met Anita Chaudhary, an ostracized unwed mother. Anita was sold by her parents for $75 to work as a kamlari, or domestic servant, and the man who purchased her repeatedly raped her and impregnated her. Anita’s story is not uncommon in Nepal, where many girls are bought and sold as domestic servants, and do not have the freedom to choose if or when to have children.

Anita Chaudhary, 18, speaks as if all emotion has been kicked out of her. She stares into the distance, her voice is barely a whisper, and her shoulders are slumped forward in defeat.

But there's a flicker of fight left.

Chaudhary is one of thousands of former Nepali girl slaves - kamlaris - who were sold by their impoverished parents for the equivalent of $50-$75 to work as domestic servants in the homes of higher caste families. Although the Nepali Supreme Court outlawed the practice in 2006, it continues in the remote villages of the indigenous Tharu, who sell their daughters to feed the rest of the family or pay sharecropping debts. (In fact, while reporting there in January 2009, I met politicians, newspaper editors, school teachers and a UNICEF worker who kept kamlari servants.) Girls report being beaten, forced to work 20-hour days, and in the worst cases, raped by their employers.

Anita, who cooked and cleaned for a male school teacher in the Dang district of southwestern Nepal for nine years, is one of 35 former kamlaris who are suing their traffickers.

Her life is over, she said, but her lawsuit is for her son. Her baby, then 18 months, is the son of the school teacher who bought her, she said.

Anita told her story from inside a small hut where she runs a sundry store, selling cigarettes, sugar, eggs, candy, soap, playing cards and chilies. The walls are made from a mixture of mud, rice husk and cow dung. The roof is elephant grass.

"When I was nine, my father told me I was a big girl and it was time to bring in income," she said. "I was scared, I didn't know who I was going to live with."

Anita washed dishes, scrubbed the floor and swept in her owner's home. She had to clean the cow shed and go to the forest to collect fodder - leafy branches and tall grasses - and carry heavy bundles on her head back to her owner's house for his goats and pigs to eat.

Then, one day the wife went out. Anita was 12. He took her hand, she said, and brought her to his bedroom and began to touch her. When she protested, he told her not to worry because he had had a vasectomy.

The visits to the bedroom continued daily until Anita was 17, she said. Twice, she became pregnant, and twice her owners took her to a clinic for an abortion. The third time, she kept her pregnancy a secret because she wanted the baby. In her ninth month, rumors started circulating in her village, and an aunt came to the school teacher's house to see if Anita was bearing a child.

The aunt took her home, and the next day Anita gave birth in a hut in her village.

But, because she was an unwed mother, she was kicked out of her family's house. She now has a scarlet letter on her sari.

"I'm very sad all the time," she said.Society Welfare Action Nepal (SWAN), a charity working to end the kamlari practice, gave Anita the startup money to open her store. It's also her home, where she sleeps at night with the baby she named Shangam Sharma Majagaina. No one in the village will take them in.

"My own family doesn't like me. They let me down."

The Nepal Youth Foundation assisted Anita with her lawsuit, a paternity case that if proven would mean she would legally be the man's wife and entitled to land. The Foundation is run by Olga Murray, an 86-year-old Sausalito, California (USA) woman who spent a career as a research attorney for the California Supreme Court.

It's an uphill battle, Murray said, because despite the 2006 Supreme Court law, which also calls for restitution to former kamlaris, no one has received any compensation from the government.

The school teacher has said in television interviews with Nepali journalists that the child is not his.

The only time Anita smiled when I interviewed her was when asked if she's glad she had her son. When she smiled, years fell off her face.

"I want land so I can send my son to school," she said. "I want to give justice to him as soon as possible."

Despite the odds, Anita successfully sued her attacker. She was given half his land, where she now lives and farms wheat, rice, potatoes and seasonal vegetables. She earns enough to send her son, now four, to school. Anita says her baby rekindled her will to fight back, but she will always be sad that her family disowned her.

About The Artist 

Meredith A. May is an award-winning narrative writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Hired in summer 1999, she writes news, features and travel stories along with personal essays in the Sunday magazine. Her 2004 series on a war-wounded Iraqi boy won the PEN USA Literary Award for Journalism, and her 2006 sex trafficking investigation was honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and is being adapted into a novel by the Stanford Graphic Novel Project. Her writing is included in the book, Best Newspaper Writing 2005, published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. She has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. Meredith's work on girl slavery in Nepal was awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists, and funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. She holds a B.A. from Mills College in Oakland, CA, where she also teaches journalism. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College in Maryland, and is working on a memoir. Meredith is also a fourth-generation beekeeper, who manages two rooftop hives at the San Francisco Chronicle and writes about them in her Honeybee Chronicles newspaper column. Learn more about Meredith at www.meredithamay.com .