From slave to entrepreneur

Sushma Kumari Tharu, former kamaiya, is now working as a a self-employed tailor in the village. All photos: PREM BISWOKARMA

Looking at Sushma Kumari Tharu today, one would be hard-pressed to find any resemblance with the meek young girl she once was. This farmer, tailor, small-time electrician is now her family’s and village’s favourite daughter. 

It has not been an easy journey for Sushma. At 12, she was exiled to a life of a bonded labourer, and was forced to trade her childhood, freedom and education for food.

Sushma was among tens of thousands of young women across the western plains of Nepal forced into indentured servitude for zamindar landlords in a traditional system known as kamlari. Together with the kamaiya system, they represented the continued practice of modern day slavery in Nepal until both were abolished 15 years ago.

Sushma was among thousands of girls rescued from the clutches of their ‘owners’, but the ban on the kamlari system did not immediately change her life for the better. Her family moved away from the landlord’s property in Bardia district in search of work, and her aunt enrolled Sushma at a local school. 

“When I worked for the zamindar, my life was not my own. He owned me,” says Sushma, now 27. “I was young and didn’t know much about anything. I worked all day, cooking, cleaning and washing, fetching fodder for livestock.” 

Her parents settled in Badhaiyatal in land the government handed out for families of freed kamaiyaBeing the oldest child, Sushma was called back to take care of her family and dropped out of school after Grade 10. 

She helped her parents in their fields, and first focused on vegetable farming and then assisted her father in selling the produce in the local market. Business went well, and the family leased more land to grow other crops. 

Sushma then started looking for additional sources of income, but because of her lack of education there were not a lot of opportunities. 

Not one to give up, she took a two-month-long course in electrical wiring, learned the basics and helped neighbours with repairs. 

But because the work involved traveling to the town of Gulariya, she decided to take up tailoring instead.

“My years as kamlari made me strong, I could adapt to any situation and never gave up,” she says. “There is a lot of potential in tailoring, and I want to open my own shop.”

Sushma Kumari Tharu with her family in Bardiya

Traditionally, families from Sushma’s indigenous Tharu community are headed by men who set rules. But this is now changing, women now have the freedom to pursue work outside their homes and their opinion is taken into consideration during decision-making.  

This has helped Sushma in her activism to help empower the women of her community. She is a municipality-level secretary of the Mukta Kamaiya Advocacy Group in Badhaiyatal. She is also a member of a local women's agro cooperative and a savings and loans committee.

Sushma earns Rs15,000 a month, which is just about enough to pay for food and basics. She still helps her parents and sister-in-law by tending their fields, her brother is a daily wage worker but the youngest sister is physically handicapped. 

Most of Sushma’s friends are now married, and have their own families. But she has dedicated her life to supporting her parents and siblings, and helping fellow Tharu women to rise above their station in life.

After the bonded labour system was abolished, the government issued identity cards for freed kamlari so they could better access food, shelter, healthcare, education, and other essential services. But Sushma’s ID card has not been of much help. 

Sushma has also learnt the hard way that no one is going to help people like her, she is determined to work hard, learn new skills, and be financially independent. 

Says Sushma: “I have no regrets, I just wish the state hadn’t abandoned us once after we were rescued. They don’t care if we live or die or how we survive. And that has actually made us more resilient.”

Read also: Nothing to lose but their chains, Sewa Bhattarai

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