It was during the 1999 Maghi festival, whose revelries grip western Nepal in mid-January each year, that Asha Tharu’s parents sold her. Asha, who was then five years old, fetched $40. In return for the money, Asha was sent to work for a year as a bonded labourer at the house of her new owner in Gularia, a town near her village of Khairapur.
“I had to get up very early and I had to clean the pots, clean the rooms and wash the clothes,” recalls Asha, now a bright 15-year-old. “I worked all day and I didn’t get enough sleep.”
I have come along jolting, unmade roads from Nepalgunj in western Nepal to meet Asha at her sister-in-law’s hut, a rather beautiful dwelling of unbaked mustard-yellow bricks, more African in appearance than Asian. In the main living area are two large, exquisitely fashioned mud urns built into the walls for storing rice. In the unfurnished room where the family sleeps, Asha sits on the dirt floor and tells me about her new life. She says she is happy in school and that, on the weekends, she works in a brick factory, earning $1.30 for an eight-hour shift. That is enough to buy rice and to help her elder sister pay for school.
More than anything, Asha remembers the petty slights she endured during her eight years of servitude, which ended last year when her “master” agreed to release her. “They would give me scraps. I used to feel very hurt by that, receiving the left-overs of guests or the elder family,” she says, glancing occasionally at the dusty ground outside the mud hut where she now lives. “Sometimes I’d get rotten food, or half-stomach food, not enough to stop my hunger,” she says. “They would hit me or shout at me if I dared complain.”