October 2012


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Self-employment Begins the Road to Liberation for Freed Kamaiyas in Nepal

Anita Rai

I have been familiar with the kamaiya system for the past decade, but I first encountered the Kamaiyas and their issues personally when I was appointed as a staff member of the Society for Participatory Cultural Education, or SPACE. I found and felt throughout my encounter with them that Kamaiyas still work as slaves in their landlords’ fields or as domestic workers. Although the slavery system has been formally abolished in Nepal, its vestiges have remained in the kamaiya system. Moreover, Kamaiyas have been exploited, not only for their labor, but also physically, mentally and sexually as well.

The government has distributed two katthas to five katthas (approximately 75 square meters to 340 square meters) of land to each family. However, most of the distributed land is not fertile and is not large enough to feed their family, and, as a result, entire families of Kamaiyas try to cope by working as daily wage laborers. Many of them also travel to neighboring countries, such as India, seeking overseas jobs.

Basically, the freed Kamaiyas engage in such vulnerable work as masonry, rickshaw-pulling, wage laborers on building roads and canals, construction projects, agricultural work and carrying heavy loads, all of which are unreliable jobs. Occasionally, they are busy working, but most of the time they are forcefully idle. Furthermore, the majority of the freed Kamaiyas are unskilled workers, and consequently, they have no bargaining power with their employers. Overall, it is difficult for them to cope with providing for their daily needs. In addition, they are not able to get credit from banks and other agencies due to their meager income.

To respond to their needs, SPACE initiated a three-year program in 2011, the Community Empowerment and Sustainable Development Project, at the district level after consulting Kamaiya and political leaders, represenAnita Rai is program coordinator of the Community Empowerment and Sustainable Development Project of SPACE in Bardiya District in Nepal.tatives of local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), secretaries of village development committees (VDCs) and local intellectuals.

Through this program, 1,682 freed Kamaiyas from five VDCs have been organized into 81 groups. The overall working strategy of SPACE in this program is to provide institutional development, income generation, education and health care with a variety of workshops held to promote the organizational development of the people.

Specific activities in the area of income generation have included fixing mobile phones, repairing motorcycles, installing hand pumps, poultry farming, vegetable gardening and training programs for social workers and business planning. The use of paddle pumps for irrigation and training to promote entrepreneurship are other activities. As a result, the freed Kamaiyas are now engaged in repairing mobile phones, poultry farming, rearing pigs and installing hand pumps. In this way, they have alternative occupations and are earning 4,000 rupees to 14,000 rupees (US$55 to US$194) per month. Now 102 freed Kamaiyas in these groups are self-employed and are operating their own business. Overall, the 81 groups have saved more than 1.39 million rupees (US$19,200), and they are mobilizing this money to improve their health, children’s education and income-generating capabilities.

For example, the health and sanitation of the people has improved through the participatory health sanitation transformation campaign conducted by SPACE. Presently, 54 percent of the households have started to use toilets, and they are more conscious about their health, reducing preventative diseases and therefore the amount of money they had spent in the past for health care. Consequently, they can now save more money because of this change in their daily behavior.

Moreover, with their increased income, the freed Kamaiyas have begun to invest in their children’s education and to send them to school. To speed up their efforts to enjoy quality education, SPACE has conducted post-literacy classes for adults and child learning centers for children. Group members have been able to read and write due to the post-literacy class, and similarly, the child learning centers have helped to achieve 100 percent enrollment of school-age children in the schools. SPACE has also supported the tuition fees for students, and, as a result, more than three dozen students passed their school leaving certificate (SLC) exams.

Challenges naturally remain, but the freed Kamaiyas are now gradually beginning to enjoy their freedom.

* Anita Rai is program coordinator of the Community Empowerment and Sustainable Development Project of SPACE in Bardiya District in Nepal.