From serf to solicitor

Urmila Chaudhari pursues a law degree to provide former bonded labourers like herself legal support

At age of nine, Urmila Chaudhari was brought from her home in Dang to be an indentured servant in the household of a landlord in Kathmandu. 

At age 21, she was still washing dishes and doing household chores at her owner’s house. But she always dreamt of going to school. 

At age 36, she is a third-year student at Kathmandu School of Law and determined to provide legal aid to children like her who were bonded into indentured servitude.

“I have reached this point after struggling and suffering for years, but there are hundreds of young girls like me who are still treated like slaves,” says Chaudhari. “I understand what they are going through, and want to help them as a lawyer and friend.”

Zamindar families who lived in Kathmandu used to source household help from the children of Tharu families in Dang, Banke, Bardia, Kailali and Kanchanpur districts to be kept in bonded servitude, essentially modern-day domestic slaves.

The children, primarily girls, would be promised a monthly salary and educational opportunities, but usually got neither. Chaudhari was from Manpur in Dang and was also brought to Kathmandu under the same pretext and instead of being a student she was a serf as she grew into adulthood. 

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From serf to solicitor 2
Urmila Chaudhary with her classmates at Kathmandu School of Law.

Instead of going to school, she was made to do the dishes in the mornings and the evenings, wash the clothes and clean the owner’s house in the afternoon. 

“At the time, I used to think that was my destiny,” recalls Chaudhari.

After the Society for Women’s Awareness (SWAN) Nepal and Friends of Needy Children (FNC) began a campaign to eradicate the kamlari tradition, Chaudhari was finally freed in January 2007 after 12 years of bonded labour. 

Overnight, Urmila Chaudhari switched from slave to activist, and joined the movement to declare Dang kamlari-free. She also joined the Free Kamalari Development Forum, and after pressure from all sides the Nepal government finally abolished the practice of indentured labour in 2013. 

Also abolished was the kamaiya system, which like kamlari, was a feudal practice in which mainly landless Tharu families from the western Tarai would be bonded to owners who made them work in their fields to pay off inter-generational debt.

In 2018, Chaudhari was conferred the prestigious ‘Freedom from Fear Award’ in New York by the Roosevelt Institute to Americans and in Middelburg, Netherlands, by the Roosevelt Stichting to non-Americans. Previous laureates include Malala Yousafzai, Hussain al-Shahristani, Aung San Suu Kyi and Louise Arbour. 

“I want to dedicate this award to my fellow 13,000 free kamlari,” Chaudhary said in her acceptance speech in 2018. She has got five other international awards for her anti-slavery activism, including the United Nations Youth Courage Award for Education and International Human Rights.

She adds that the awards inspire and encourage her to carry on, to work even harder for the children from disadvantaged and marginalised communities in Nepal. 

Says Chaudhary: “After I become a lawyer, with continued support from other activists I am sure I can fulfil my dream to carry on the struggle for justice for all underprivileged Nepali children.”

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