Various forms of forced labour and bondsman systems existed since the 17th century. Traditionally, people without land or work could get loans from landowners allowing them to sustain a minimum livelihood. In exchange to this, they had to live and work on the landowner's land as quasi slaves. Exorbitant debts were charged, and whole families were forced to slave labour for years and even generations, bonded by indebtedness to the landowner and bonded by unequal social relations to sell labour in lieu of the loan taken.
Following the eradication of malaria in the Terai region in the 1950-60s, the large influx of hill migrants marginalized traditionally landowning Tharu people by occupying their lands. While the Tharus had no records of the land they were cultivating, the settlers registered the land in their name, forcing the Tharus to work as agricultural labourers. The customary practice of obtaining a "helping hand for family business" was gradually replaced by the forced labour system called Kamaiya, which in Tharu parlance is tantamount to hardworking hired farm labour. The Kamaiya system existed in particular in western Nepal and affects especially the Tharu people and Dalits.
In its modern form, girls and young women are sold by their parents into indentured servitude under contract for periods of one year with richer, higher-caste buyers, generally from outside their villages. In 2006, the Supreme Court of Nepal affirmed that this practice known as Kamlari is illegal.
Increasing protests against the Kamaiya system, organized by the "Kamaiya movement", led to its abolition in 2000. On 17 July that year, the Government of Nepal announced the Kamaiya system be banned, all Kamaiyas be freed and their debts be cancelled. Although most Kamaiya families were freed, the system has persisted. Many Kamaiyas were evicted by their former landlords and released into poverty without any support. Others received land that was unproductive.
To alleviate the poverty of the affected people – the main cause of the system – rehabilitation and distribution of land were promised to ex-Kamaiya families. To put action behind the attempts to discuss the land issue with the government, the ex-Kamaiyas started occupying land in Kailali and Bardiya districts in the winter of 2005-06. But a decade after being liberated, the freed Kamaiyas are forced to live a very difficult life as the government has still not fulfilled its promises of providing a proper rehabilitation and relief package.
Various charitable organizations have mitigated the Kamlari practice by offering grants larger than prospective masters to families who promise not to sell their daughters, as well as funds for the girls' education.
- World Organization Against Torture (2006). "The Kamaiya System of Bonded Labour in Nepal" (PDF). A study prepared by the World Organization Against Torture for the International Conference Poverty, Inequality and Violence: is there a human rights response? Geneva, 4–6 October 2005.
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- Peter Lowe, Vinaya Kasajoo (2001) Kamaiya: Slavery and Freedom in Nepal. Mandala Book Point, in association with Danish Association for International Co-operation (MS Nepal), Kathmandu ISBN 99933-1-011-5, ISBN 978-99933-1-011-2 Mandala Book Point: About the book
- MS Nepal: Kamaiya: Slavery and Freedom in Nepal
- ActionAid International Nepal: Freed Kamaiyas in Nepal
- FIAN International: Nepal: Right to food of Kamaiya families threatened in Tikapur
- United Nations UN urges end to Nepalese practice of using young girls as domestic workers
- BBC: Desperate plight of Nepal "slave girls"