Four months ago, Prabina Khadka (name changed) was abducted by a group of strangers from Budhanilkantha and taken to a house in Kamalpokhari. The kidnappers wanted the 12-year-old girl to work as a caretaker for an elderly woman. Since Khadka was already working as a domestic help in Budhanilkanta in return for education, the men who took her reckoned she would not mind doing the same in another house.
After being locked up in a Rana-era house for five days, Khadka managed to call her employer in Budhanilkantha. A dramatic rescue involving around 20 police and child protection officers ensued. The house of kidnappers was fined Rs 50,000 and the girl was returned to her previous employer. She would stay there until her fifth grade exams were over.
The unusual case with Khadka was that she was drugged and kidnapped by strangers, but child domestic workers often get passed around as if they were a piece of property. A child typically starts to work by looking after children in the house of an acquaintance. Once the children in that household grow up, the child domestic worker gets transferred to another household which needs assistance in taking care of, say, a pregnant woman or an elderly. Usually, the transfer takes place with the approval of the child domestic worker’s family members. Sometimes, it happens without anyone’s knowledge.
A child rights organisation, Children-Women in Social Service and Human Rights (CWISH), has in the past rescued children who were at stages where they no longer remembered the name of their parents or of their home villages. The organisation once rescued a 16-year-old girl who had been brought to the Valley when she was little more than two years old.
“It took us three months to find out that she was from Solukhumbhu,” says Pradip Dangol, child protection officer at the organisation.
If Khadka had not been found that day, her fate could have been similar to that of the girl from Solukhumbhu. Once lost and out of contact with parents, children are at greater risk of being physically and sexually abused. And when they come of age, it becomes extremely difficult or even impossible to obtain citizenship certificates.
No one has exact data on child domestic workers in the country. The figure most commonly cited is from a 2001 study conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics and International Labour Organisation, which said that one in every five houses in Kathmandu employs a child domestic worker. A recent study carried out by CWISH found the prevalence
to be lower at one in every 19 households.
Despite laws prohibiting child labour and hundreds of rescue operations every year, most urban families keep child domestic labourers because it is normal to have one. These families keep child domestic labourers under the guise of altruism, saying that the family provides the child an education that he or she would have otherwise been deprived in village. For the amount they invest in a child labourer, these families could easily hire an adult domestic worker, but they do not because keeping a child labourer reflects a ‘higher’ social status.
“Also because it is easier to shout at a child,” says Dangol. For the children, the hopes of better education rarely materialise. Fourteen-year-old Kamal Thapa (name changed) worked in the house of a Kathmandu University professor in Baluwatar for a year, hoping to get better food and education. But the boy had to survive on leftovers and work long hours, often missing the first few periods in school. He was rescued two years ago when he could no longer take the abuse and started crying as he walked to school.
Like the most denizens in the Valley, the Central Child Welfare Board (CCWB) is aware of the plight of child domestic workers. But both are reactive in their response, complaining and prosecuting employer families only when the abuse is severe, such as in the case of rape or debilitating beatings.
Tarak Dhital, executive director at CCWB, says there are two reasons behind this inaction. One, child domestic workers are just too common a sight. Second, even if the child’s existence is reported to concerned officials, no one knows “what’s next” for the child. Who will or should take care of the child?
“We still don’t know who or what organisation is responsible for their rehabilitation,” says Dhital.
Although, the Board is working on a child protection mechanism, it will take years before it is implemented. Until then, child workers will remain a sore sight, suffering under visible labour and invisible oppression.