Kamaiya: Breaking Traditions of Enslavement

Modern slavery can take many forms. As you may have seen in our Myth vs Reality posts, it’s not usually a violent kidnapping situation. It’s almost always more complicated and multi-faceted. For instance, a recent story from Unseen Partner, Restoring Hope Nepal, shines a light on how a centuries-old tradition of bonded labor has kept a specific people group enslaved for generations. This traditional system in western Nepal is called Kamaiya.

Kamaiya is a traditional system of bonded labor in southern Nepal (dating back to the 17th century), where people without land could work on a property to sustain a minimum livelihood working for the landowner until the time their loan was cleared. The exorbitant debts bonded them to their lenders and forced them to sell their labor to repay the loan. This took generations. 

The Kamaiya system was abolished by Nepal in 2000, and all Kamaiyas (18,400 families) were to be freed and their debt cancelled—and yet these families remain enslaved and landless.

A modern form of the Kamaiya system is called Kamlari, where young women and girls are sold by their family to higher-class buyers as maids on a contract basis. It became a tradition to send girls as young as five years old to earn a salary of $50 a year (with no access to health care or education). Brokers would come annually to buy girls, who were to be released after the contract ended, usually after one year. Very few were voluntarily released by their owners, and a substantial number did not even receive any money.

However, some are seeking freedom. And they have found it at Unseen Partner, Restoring Hope Nepal.

Last year, half of the women who came to Restoring Hope Nepal’s safe house were from these traditions. They are seeking independence & a fresh start in continuing their education and learning a trade.

These traditions are deeply rooted, but they are not unchangeable.

*Photos courtesy of Unseen Alumni Partner, Restoring Hope Nepal.