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The land of Nepal's 'slave girls'

By Bibbi Abruzzini CHITWAN, Dec. 28 (Xinhua) -- Far from the snow-capped mountains attracting thousands of tourists to Nepal, the vast western lowlands reveal another side of the country. But behind the picturesque landscape hides a terrible reality.

For generations, ethnic Tharu girls as young as 6 inhabiting the region have been handed over to landlords and brokers under a bondage system known as "kamlari."

A decade ago, an estimated 14,000 'slave girls' were locked in the kamlari system. Thousands have been rescued, but the search continues for the remaining few hundreds.

"There are about 376 young Tharu girls who continue to work as bonded laborers in Nepal", Man Bahadur Chhetri, program coordinator of the Freed Kamlari Development Forum (FKDF) told Xinhua. "The last remaining kamlaris are the most difficult to free as they are employed by prominent figures."

According to FKDF, public officials, businesspersons, teachers and political leaders are still involved in the practice.

"The buying and selling of Tharu girls has gone down significantly in the country, but transactions and are now being replaced by trafficking of girls from Nepal into foreign countries, " Chhetri said.

This phenomenon emerged as the Tharu became a subservient caste in their own land unable to access job opportunities.

Less than a century ago, members of the Tharu community owned their farms and lived in relative isolation in Terai enjoying a natural resistance to malaria. But when the disease was eradicated from the region in 1960, the Tharu were displaced by hordes of migrants looking for new pastures.

This forced some families to sell their daughters to make ends meet for as little as 20 U.S. dollars for each year of service.

It is important to point out, however, that there are several sub-groups of Tharu spread across Nepal.

In Chitwan, one of the most popular tourist destinations of the country, the emerging tourism sector provides a steady source of income for the Tharus populating the area. Despite their caste being associated with the kamlari practice, most of them have never heard of it.

"There are no such things in our village," said Bania Tharu, a woman from Sauraha, about 170 km south of Kathmandu. "I work in the fields, my husband is in Malaysia and my children go to school. "

Chitwan is generally viewed as an inherently good investment - economically and environmentally, two factors that are often in conflict.

The Chitwan National Park protects endangered animals and revenues flow indirectly into the local Tharu community as scores of tourists flock the region each year to have a glance of majestic endangered species such as the gharial, sloth bear, rhinos or - if you are especially lucky - the elusive Bengal tiger.

"In Chitwan, Tharus usually don't sell their daughters as people have their own land and more recently the tourism sector is helping the community prosper," explained Man Bahadur Chhetri.

But the problem of kamlaris could further escalate as other castes in Nepal are trafficking girls as a survival strategy.

"From an internal trafficking perspective, the selling of Tharus girls has decreased but they are now being replaced by different indigenous groups," Binod Adhikari, a Nepali filmmaker who has made several documentaries about the kamlari system, told Xinhua. "The practice continues to be widespread. Once I was invited by a former minister to have tea and a young girl who had less than 12 years served us. This says a lot about the situation in our country."

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