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Week of 12.19.08

Transcript: Daughters for Sale

BRANCACCIO: Slavery as a business practice: really, now, in this day and age. Among other places, it happens in the country of Nepal, impoverished families selling their young daughters to raise cash. But what you also need to know is that some folks have figured out a remarkable way to stop this buying and selling of girls breaking the cycle of poverty—and pain—that underlies it. Correspondent Michelle Mitchell and producer Dan Logan traveled to Nepal, as part of our series on social entrepreneurs at work that we call Enterprising Ideas.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Way out in the farmlands of western Nepal lives Sabita.

She's ten years old... four years ago; she was sold by her own parents to a wealthy family for the price of thirty dollars.

This is the face of modern-day slavery. And in this part of Nepal, thousands of girls like Sabita are sold every year. While it's a practice that's been going on here for generations, her mother's pain is still fresh.

HIRA MOTI: It was very hard for me. When she left for Kathmandu, I did not eat for 5 days.


HIRA: Yes.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: For her parents, selling sabita is part of a devastating cycle of poverty. They're from an ethnic group called the Tharu... farmers in western Nepal on the low end of the country's caste system. Like many Tharus, they're sharecroppers... dependent on local landlords for their farmland. So when their landlord asked to take their daughter for the year, they felt they had no choice.

Sabita was sent here, to the capital city of Katmandu, a world away for a girl who had never been far from her village. Many Tharu girls work here for the country's elite in private homes, restaurants, and hotels.

Frequently, they're abused, neglected, and sometimes, forced into prostitution.

Sabita was only six years old when she started working for her wealthy employer. Her main responsibility? Taking care of an infant child.

When she couldn't stop the baby from crying, her keepers became livid.

What kinds of things would they yell?

SABITA: They would say, "I'll take you to the police and get you arrested."

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Did they ever hit you?

SABITA: They hit me on the head.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: We came to Nepal to find out more about this practice of parents selling their daughters, and sought out an organization dedicated to putting an end to child slavery.

SOM PANERU: I was shocked. Being a Nepali citizen and I—I was shocked that it's still happening in my country in the 21st century.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Som Paneru is the head of the Nepalese youth opportunity foundation, a non-profit organization that helps Nepali children.

He and his colleagues came up with an economic solution for this problem that features an unlikely hero: a pig. More on that later.

Paneru first heard the stories of child slaves while living in the city, where many of these girls end up serving their time. But it wasn't until he traveled out into the country that he began to understand just how widespread the problem was.

SOM PANERU: I grabbed a bus and went to Dang about ten hours' bus ride from here, from Katmandu. Every single household had sent their daughters, one or two, if not three, four girls, away from the home.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Paneru spent weeks going door-to-door through Tharu villages. People were reluctant to talk... but gradually, a picture of the practice began to emerge.

SOM PANERU: They do love their daughters. It's not that they hate their daughters. But you know —the temptation of a little money, 3,000 rupees, 4,000 rupees, $50, $60 a year is a big money for their poor family. So, that's—that's why they were doing it.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Nepal is one of the poorest countries on earth. The average Nepali makes less than a dollar a day... and the Tharus are the poorest of the poor.

But it wasn't just about poverty, Paneru found. It had become acceptable - even a mark of prestige in some Tharu families -to make money selling their daughters. In fact, a Tharu family who sold all of their girls would be considered successful.

A slave-trade - born from poverty - had become a big business... integrated into the local economy.

SOM PANERU: What happens, you know, the—in every village, there are—people who work as—middlemen. They go to the door to door and ask, you know, "Oh, okay. You know your daughter is getting eight years. And I—I know somebody in Katmandu. Would you—would you like to send her, and you—you get maybe 3,000 rupees as a salary."

MICHELLE MITCHELL: 3,000 rupees... or about forty dollars for a year's work.

The deals go down during the Maghe Festival... a huge Hindu holiday in January. The festival marks the end of the fiscal year for Tharus, when debts are settled.

For many, the holiday is a time of celebration. Songs telling Hindu stories, offerings of rice and water for better karma and ritual bathing, to cleanse the soul and keep sickness at bay.

But in the quiet Tharu villages, children are bought and sold and that's where we went looking. It wasn't long before we came across a suspiciously well-dressed woman meeting with a Tharu family.

Her name was Asha Shah, and she had come all the way from Katmandu to take an eleven-year-old girl back with her as a servant. In fact, Sushila, the girl, has worked for this family for several years.

When I asked Asha Shah about the practice of child slavery, she told me it didn't exist in the area.

Can you tell me about the tradition?

ASHA SHAH: The slavery tradition is no longer here. The tradition has been eliminated. No one has people working at home. Some homes may have them, but not many.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Our cameras clearly made her nervous... and shah left soon after. But as we found out later, she would be coming back.

Deals like these are exactly what Paneru was trying to prevent. But how do you overcome a tradition that is so engrained in a society and an economy?

Paneru and his organization offered their own business proposition. If a Tharu family promised to keep their daughter home for the year, the organization would pay them the wages the daughter would have earned... plus, enroll her in school.

But they learned that the Tharu mothers were worried that cash would be spent by their husbands on alcohol. So the mothers suggested a different form of payment.

SOM PANERU: The mothers said, "Give us a piglet." You know, the amount of money you—you make by selling a piglet at the end of the year after raising a year is the same what my daughter would be bringing at the end of the year." So, that it came from the mothers.

In 2000, thirty-two girls and their families accepted the deal. In the eight years since, over 4,000 girls - including Sabita - have been saved. Their families receiving a piglet or a baby goat in return. The girls stay at home and go to school.

Each family can sell the animal at the end of the year and even breed it... making more money, ultimately, than their daughter ever would have pulled in.

A goat...for a girl. How does this actually work?

Shanti Chaudhary is one of the foundation's people on the ground. She's a volunteer who was recruited from the area to make the pitch to Tharu families... part salesman, part market-researcher.

SOM PANERU: They go door to door checking who has sent how many daughters, where, who is the middle man? Where has the girl gone? In the local village, or in Katmandu, or Pokhara, where? So once they come up with the—basic information, then they persuade the family to bring the girls back.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Early one morning, we followed Shanti as she made her rounds. At practically every house in the neighborhood, a girl had a story to tell.

SHANTI CHAUDHARY: Did the landlord say they would send you to school?

GITA: Yes, but they didn't send me.

MOTHER: Even if she does not learn a lot, at least she will be able to write her name and her village. But they didn't send her to school.

SHANTI CHAUDHARY: They didn't send you school?


MICHELLE MITCHELL: The family that bought this girl and used her for a servant had refused to send her to school.

SHANTI CHAUDHARY: If you had an opportunity to stay at home and study, will you study?

GITA: Yes.

SHANTI CHAUDHARY: You won't go to the employer's home again?


MICHELLE MITCHELL: It was a good day for Chaudhary. Several families agreed to take the deal.

Why do you think some families say no?

SHANTI CHAUDHARY: They just think that all organizations are the same. Many organizations have come and gone—They generally always tell us that people from these organizations come, and ask us a few questions and then nothing happens. We tell them that we are not like that.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: The Youth Foundation succeeded where others had not, because it stayed in the villages with the families, month after month and year after year. But as the program grew, the foundation realized that it wasn't enough to rely on an economic incentive to change the culture and mindset of Tharu society.

So they came up with a second part to their strategy: a massive outreach and publicity campaign to win hearts and minds. It's all about is encouraging public awareness and civic action... led by some of the very girls who lived through slavery.

Eighteen-year-old Rajkumari is one of them. She was sold for most of her adolescence... her family was so poor that they boiled weeds to eat, and there was only one blanket among the six of them.

Rajkumari says her owners fed her only scraps of food... often taunting her and beating her.

And the abuse didn't end there.

RAJKUMARI CHAUDHARY: The room I used to sleep in was like a warehouse they kept wood and broken things. There was an old bed there. When I was sleeping, the male employer came and touched me. I was scared. But I kept my eyes closed and covered myself. But he touched again.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Did you stop him?

RAJKUMARI CHAUDHARY: When I looked he asked, "Gita, are you sleeping?" It was so late at night so I said, "Of course, I am sleeping."

MICHELLE MITCHELL: He went away that night... but Rajkumari would have to stay in that home for two more months.

When she returned to her village, she heard about the Youth foundation, walked an hour to their nearest office... and signed herself up.

So tell me what you wanna do now. Now you're in school. What do you want to do with your life?

RAJKUMARI CHAUDHARY: I want to study and become an artist. I also want to work with NYOF.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Rajkumari has now joined with other former slaves to go door-to-door in the villages... swelling the ranks of the organization's volunteers.

SOM PANERU: The girls have empowered to say no to the system. And that has created tremendous pressure to the communities. Even if they are poor they say, "Oh, okay, it is not right thing to do. We'll find something else."

MICHELLE MITCHELL: The girls also give radio interviews, recounting their experiences as child slaves. And to reach those without a radio, there are the street plays... written and performed by the girls themselves. It's usually the only show in town, so it draws a lot of attention... often choking an entire intersection. In this scene, a drunken father returns home from the Maghe Festival, and is confronted by his wife.

WIFE: So, you did send our daughter.

DRUNK MAN: You know it, why are you shouting?

WIFE: You must have some money left, since you went drinking.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: And when their daughter goes to her new master, the master's daughter picks a fight.

WOMAN: You live in my house and beat my daughter?

SUNTALI: I have not beaten her, she...

WOMAN: If you did not, would she say it?

SUNTALI: She beat me herself.

WOMAN: When will you do the chores? Don't sit there crying.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: These plays have an impact because the scenes they re-enact play out every day for Tharu families all over this region. In fact, the program has been so successful that area schools have become overcrowded with former slaves. So the youth foundation has built new classrooms and trained new teachers.

The combined efforts of the organization here - from public awareness to education to the livestock campaign - has effectively ended child slavery in this one corner of Nepal. And an American woman from Sausalito, California, deserves much of the credit.

OLGA MURRAY: When we first started, literally thousands and thousands and thousands of girls were sent off every year. That bus station was full of these little girls crying, getting on the buses, and going to God knows where

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Olga Murray is the founder of the Nepalese youth opportunity foundation. Twenty years ago, facing retirement, she came to Nepal on vacation and was moved by the children she saw.

OLGA MURRAY: I came trekking and went into the mountains here and saw children like I had never seen before. They were the poorest kids I have ever seen, and the happiest. They had nothing. They were malnourished. They were—all of them were—they had—I didn't see a single toy. And they all had one ambition in the world, and that was to go to school.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: To her astonishment, she learned that the children she passed by on her trip had no hope of ever going to school. The faces of those children stayed with her... and she had an epiphany.

OLGA MURRAY: It was like a—a—a moment, like a flash, an "ah-hah" moment. "Okay, this is what I'm gonna do with the rest of my life. I'm goin' to send Nepali kids to school."

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Murray started the youth foundation in 1990. It pays for thousands of Nepali children to go to school and runs orphanages and health clinics.

What takes up a lot of Murray's time right now is figuring out how the foundation can expand the battle against child slavery to other areas of the country.

What are your future plans for this?

OLGA MURRAY: Our ambition is to free these girls, end the practice, and educate very well, some of the really—ambitious and dynamic ones so that they can help their community.

MICHELE MITCHELL: And when do you wanna accomplish all of that?

OLGA MURRAY: I would say within five years, we hope.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: The tradition of selling Tharus girls is concentrated in the western part of Nepal. The youth foundation has virtually eradicated the practice in the dang district... but there are four more districts left to go. This year, the target is the Bardiya district. In Bardiya, girls are usually shuttled by the middlemen through the bus stations on the way to their owners.Youth foundation volunteers like Bharat Kumar patrol transit points during the Maghe Festival. They're looking for young Tharu girls in every bus that passes through. Suddenly, he finds a girl who might be on her way to domestic slavery.

BHARAT KUMAR: Name? Gita? Gita Chaudhary, yes? Home is also Bhurigaun?

MAN: Yes, we're siblings.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: He finds out she's on her way to her master and writes down all of the details of the place where she'll be working. Theoretically, that should be enough information for authorities to intervene... because in Nepal, buying Tharu girls is now illegal, thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision.

Can't you just get a policeman to show up at the landlord's house and say, "Hey pal, this is illegal. We're taking this kid and we're gonna—"

SOM PANERU: It doesn't work that way.The people who are there to enforce the law are employing the girls. Employing the children as domestic servants.

MICHELE MITCHELL: How do they get away with that?

SOM PANERU: It is a feudal mindset that exist in our society.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: The Youth Foundation may have the law on their side, but they are going up against both the country's ruling class and it's traditions.

Remember Asha Shah, that suspiciously well-dressed woman who had come to take eleven-year-old Sushila? After she disappeared, her father showed up. We heard that he was a powerful local leader.

HIKMAT BAHADUR MALLA: Bardiya used to have the servant tradition. Now that's eradicated. It's not there. It's the twenty-first century. The old tradition of keeping servants, beating them - it's gone. I know that well.

MICHELE MITCHELL: I want to understand—what the deal is. What—what—what is—is this indentured servitude? Is this helping to give a little girl an opportunity? What is it?

HIKMAT BAHADUR MALLA: I have taken her as a daughter - like a granddaughter. We make them say mom and dad, and start a relationship. We are not important people. We are not rich. These are the words of a religious person. Religious people do not lie. I do not like the term servant.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: But "servant" and "master" is exactly what was going on here. The very next day, Sushila was sent back to serve yet another year. The foundation simply didn't have enough manpower in the district to prevent it.

To expand the battle against child slavery, the Youth Foundation has embarked on a new effort to find partners. They're looking to scale up by joining other organizations who are operating in the country... using their proven model of economic incentives and outreach. They've recruited several non-governmental organizations to bring the families of former slaves into a sustainable farming venture... growing vegetables to keep out of poverty.

SOM PANERU: We are trying to bring bigger players, other big NGOs, who have a lot of money—that we don't have. So that, you know—they can take part of the responsibility.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Working together, the groups are continuing their public campaign against the practice. During this year's Maghe Festival, thousands of girls - many of them former slaves - were bussed in from their villages for a march through the streets of a local town.

MARCHERS: We don't need slavery! No to exploitation! Let's end slavery! Let's end it! Let's end it!

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Som Paneru and Olga Murray marched with the girls to a rally, where Rajkumari and other former slaves called on the Nepali government to take more action.

GIRL: We don't need slavery!

CROWD: No to exploitation!

GIRL: We don't need slavery!

CROWD: No to exploitation!

GIRL: Let's end slavery!

CROWD: Let's end it! Let's end it

MICHELE MITCHELL: There were thousands of girls walking through this town. It took forever to get through the town. And they packed that square. What was it like for you?

OLGA MURRAY: It was a thrill, I tell you! I mean, when I—32 girls, we started with. And I kept looking around me. I have to tell you, I have strong political opinions. But I'm not a marcher. And I've never, ever marched in a rally before. What am I doing 10,000 miles from home raising my hand and chanting?" It was—it was thrilling.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Murray's organization may have helped these girls to win their freedom, but their lives are not the only ones that have been changed by all of this.

You're in your 80s?


MICHELE MITCHELL: What keeps you going?

OLGA MURRAY: Good genes, good health—an enthusiasm for life, my love for this country and the—children in it, and—the accomplishments that I see every day. I wake up every morning here. And I know today I'm gonna be doing something wonderful for a child.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: After our interview, Murray's group was finally able to track down Sushila - the girl we'd found being sold at the Maghe Festival. They sent word to her father, who agreed to work with the foundation and made a day-long bus-ride to Katmandu to reclaim his daughter from her owner.

A Youth Foundation staff member picked him up at the bus station and they soon arrived at the owner's house...Sushila seemed confused as she came to the door, but soon broke into a smile when she learned why he was there.

But then her owner showed up. That's her in the green; it was Asha Shah, the same woman who had come to pick Sushila up weeks earlier in the village, and she wanted to keep Sushila. While the foundation's representative spoke with her, other relatives showed up. The conversation grew heated, and the woman tried to keep our camera from filming the scene.

It was all pretty upsetting for eleven-year-old Sushila, but eventually, there was an agreement to send her home. Grabbing her single bag and her backpack, she and her father started making their way back to the bus station for the long ride less girl in bondage.

SUSHILA: I'm going to study, I'm going to play, and work in my own home.

SUSHILA'S FATHER: I'm feeling very good. Now, I won't send her again.

MICHELLE MITCHELL: Sushila is now back in her village, in school...and her family is now raising a goat to sell at next year's festival.

BRANCACCIO: It turns out there's much more to this story. We've just gotten an e-mail from the foundation in Nepal, and they tell us that since we first broadcast this report, the foundation has received over $40,000 in contributions from viewers like you. Enough money to rescue over 400 girls. That"s a nice bit of holiday cheer. You can find that e-mail and more over on our website.

And that's it for NOW. I'm David Brancaccio. Happy holidays, and we'll see you back here next week.

Daughters for Sale

Tales of Courage

Slideshow: Freeing the Daughters of Nepal

Girls Saved

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