There are currently more than 200 million children working in various jobs around the world. Deprived of an education and a childhood, child labourers are left with no choice but to work in order to provide for their family. As countries prepare to mark World Day Against Child Labour on June 12, former child worker Urmila spoke to Plan International about losing 13 years of her life working as a housemaid
My name is Urmila and I am 19 years old. I was six when my family sent me to work as a housemaid for a wealthy banker in Kathmandu. We were a very poor family and were at the mercy of the local landlord that employed my family. We are south-Nepalese Tharu people, and for the traditionally landless Tharus, entering into child labour contracts with landlords is often the only way to make ends meet; an arrangement known as the Kamalari system.
My parents knew early on that they would probably need to offer up my services so they set out to find the best employer for me.
Through acquaintances, they located what seemed like a good master in Kathmandu. The manager of a bank, he was both educated and well-off, and gave a guarantee to my parents that I would get a reasonable amount of time off as well as an education. The pay was also good – about 3,000 Nepalese rupees annually, (around $40).
Working in the city, my parents assumed that I would not have to endure the hard labour often associated with agricultural work in my home valley. But the day I started working for my master was the day I died – because I stopped living.
It didn’t take long before it became clear to me that all promises made by the house master would be broken. I worked non-stop from six in the morning until I went to bed at ten at night. I never had a day off. I was involved in all the household chores: I made the food, cleaned the house and looked after the children.
At age six, I looked after the master’s daughter, age five. I was not allowed to leave the property unless I was going to the market to buy food, and I was never given enough money to have any real freedom of movement. I was never allowed to get in touch with my family.
One of the things that sticks with me even to this day is the feeling of isolation I used to get when I looked after the master’s daughter. During my first year with them, I would take her to school on Fridays and after the children finished classes, they would stay on for a few hours and play. They would play games and sports, dance and sing together. Sitting there beside it all, watching other children my own age having that much fun while I was working – it gave me a real sense of unfairness in the world. It felt like having my childhood taken from me. I was not even ten years old then.
The “contract” ceased after thirteen years of labour. It was a day like any other, but I happened to pass a TV in the master’s living room during a news broadcast. Like so often at the time, there were images from a political demonstration in Kathmandu. And suddenly, among the demonstrators, I spotted my brother, who had travelled north to take part in the demonstrations.
I was able to get out of the house long enough to meet my brother in the centre of town. I told him everything and he encouraged me to escape. The next day, I got on a bus to my village in the south.
During the past year, I have finished my fifth grade exams and continue to study. Plan Nepal has provided me with basic photography training and rent, so I have started a small photo studio in my village, where I take passport pictures for other villagers and shoot weddings.
I think it is important to look forward and not to feel resentful about what has happened. My parents had no way of knowing what would happen to me. This is a practice that is still going on. We need to spread information about it so that other parents don’t make the same mistakes.
My hope is that I can do that through my photography, taking pictures of other children in the same situation here in the valley.
This story was fiurst published on June 10 and republished on June 12 to mark World Day Against Child Labour.
• Urmila was speaking to Plan International, an international organisation that works to promote the rights of children, to end child poverty