I feel bad thinking about the past and I feel awkward talking about it.
My parents were bonded labourers. Each New Year we might kept on by our masters
or more usually we would have to look for another one.
Rodney Rice, Trustee of Action Aid Ireland and retired RTÉ broadcaster, meets and interviews Krishna Devi Tharu. Krishna Devi is the Chairperson of Teshanpur Women’s Awareness Group in Nepal which is supported by ActionAid Ireland. Krishna’s parents were both bonded labourers, however she has changed her fate and is now helping hundreds of other women to do the same.
1. Do you think you and your parents could have walked away from bondage?
It’s not so simple, Kamaiyas literally didn’t own anything, so we always had to search for a landlord to work for. If we went for wage labour we didn’t even have any shelter or housing. So where would we have stayed night?
2. Did you sometimes stay with the landlord?
Yes, sometimes for maybe 5 or even 10 years.
3. Everyone talks about the violence. Did all landlords abuse the Kamaiya?
Yes, definitely. If I think back to my bondage I never thought of myself as human, or that I had rights to live independently. So how could I argue with the landlord? There was physical violence, sexual violence, but we always thought we had to obey the master. I remember one girl who was repeatedly raped by her master, the brother of an important leader, who, after each time blamed the woman for being characterless and that she should be killed.
4. After liberation you and others formed the awareness group. What made you realise that you had rights just as the men have?
Twelve of us held discussions amongst ourselves and we decided to set up the group. We got support for a food security programme and I got to know and understand the problems of others and realised we should fight for our rights. Now I organise a huge number of Kamaiya wome.
5. What are the issues within the community?
Women are equal and so we should have equal ownership of property. We should be allowed to go outside and participate within our communities as we wish. Just as the men are, we are as human too.
6. Do the men deny you anything?
Definitely. There was a tradition of women staying in the house, no freedom to go out, just do household work. But now there are some small changes. Gradually we are getting a little freedom, both personal and economic.
7. Your primary demand is to be given ID cards?
Yes, the men have them; why not the women? It’s an example of patriarchal values in society that women don’t receive them. The responsible government officials are also men and they don’t want women to get property rights. ( Kamaiya men have ID cards, other Nepalis including some men and most women do not.
8. You also seek co-operation with non-Kamaiya women. Are they open to this?
Yes, they have welcomed us and help raise our issues.
9.So you can see a future of respect?
Yes we have hopes of living a dignified life in the future. In my own case, changes came in myself and change was assisted by support agencies. Now the Prime Minister himself looks at me and I can talk to him and other officials in the eye. I will always remember the vital role played by ActionAid in our liberation. Also I want to mention the housing assistance ( provided by Irish Aid and ActionAid). Previously our houses needed renovation every year at a cost of R30-50,000. Now that money is saved and it helps a lot with our economic ampowerment allowing us live a more dignified life. These houses also provide more security than our old ones so our men can go abroad for work knowing we are more secure from violence from outside the family.