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Action Atlas: Rescuing girls from slavery in Nepal

By Allen Carroll

To most Americans, a mention of “slavery” conjures up images of horrific living conditions, backbreaking labor, fractured families, and inhuman treatment–in the American South a century and a half ago. What some of us fail to recognize is that in many parts of the world, slavery is very much a 21st-century phenomenon.

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Girls recently rescued from a probable future as slaves raise their hands when asked “Who wants to go to school?”

Take Nepal, for instance. In the shadow of the Himalayas, a tragic tradition persists among impoverished families from the Tharu ethnic group in the western part of the country. Forced by lack of money to make dire choices, parents with large families often sell their younger daughters to strangers to work as household servants in order to feed their remaining children.

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Young girls who were recently freed from slavery attend school.

In a practice that the United Nations considers slavery, the families are paid a mere $50 to $75 for a year’s work by a daughter, who is not allowed to leave the home of her masters. The selling price seems pitifully low, but with an average annual family income of only $210, a little cash and one less mouth to feed can have a major impact. Many of the girls must “work from dawn until late at night, often eating scraps and sleeping on the floor,” according to the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation (NYOF). Many are abused. They’re rarely allowed to receive an education, and some eventually become prostitutes or disappear entirely.

NYOF’s indentured daughters program has worked hard to eliminate this tradition. A decade ago, more than 20,000 girls were sold every year. The Foundation decided to try an experiment, asking families to bring their daughters home for the January holiday during which slavery contracts were customarily negotiated and renewed. They also offered to pay for the girls to attend school, and to give each family a piglet or goat, which they could raise and eventually sell for about as much as the families would have received for their child. The cost to the Foundation: only about $100 per family.

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A girl smiles in the sunshine with goats she received from NYOF, along with her freedom.

Since that initial experiment with 37 families, more than 5,000 girls have returned to their homes. And, thanks to an awareness campaign, many more girls who might have been sold into slavery remain at home with their families.

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NYOF leads a course to help girls who had never attended school catch up with classmates.

For those of us accustomed to spending $100 on a typical trip to the grocery store, it’s hard to imagine that amount literally changing a life. If you would like to help, visit the Foundation’s page on our Global Action Atlas and click the “Take Action” button.

NYOF is one of many organizations participating in our new atlas, which gives people opportunities to support community-based efforts across the globe to improve lives and protect our natural and cultural heritage.

allen-carroll.jpgNational Geographic Chief Cartographer Allen Carroll has been deeply involved in the creation of the Society’s renowned reference and wall maps, globes, and atlases for more than a decade. He led the creation of the last two editions of the World Atlas and was instrumental in launching the MapMachine, National Geographic’s first interactive online atlas. He has spearheaded the publication of many new maps and Web resources, ranging from decorative wall maps and supplement maps for National Geographic magazine to special projects featuring biodiversity, conservation, and indigenous cultures. He advises the federal government as a member of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee.

More posts by Allen Carroll

Photos courtesy NYOF