More than 20 years ago, a 14-year-old Nepalese student began a movement to free his people — and succeeded. Today his organization is partnering with Mercy Corps to ensure not just freedom, but opportunity.
In 1984 that young man, whose name is Dilli Chaudhary, founded Backward Society Education (BASE) to stand up for the rights of Nepal's marginalized Tharu ethnic group. The son of a bonded laborer, Chaudhary had personally suffered the persecution of the bottom of the caste system. Thousands of his native Tharu people, among the original inhabitants of western Nepal's lowland Terai region, had been in quasi-slavery to higher caste landlords for years.
Isolation and a lack of understanding about their rights in a broader society kept the Tharu bonded laborers at a disadvantage, trapped within the confines of their landlords' farms. Chaudhary believed that organizing bonded laborers and making them aware of their rights would result in empowerment — and change.
He began this epic task through a seemingly innocuous activity: literacy classes for bonded laborers. The classes began with 34 members. Within three years that number rose to 350, and by 1989 there were 80 literacy classes operating in 40 Tharu villages. People were learning that change was possible.
In 1991, when Nepal transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a more democratic regime, Chaudhary registered BASE as a legal entity — and, with a large base of Tharu supporters, began the hard work of advocating for the freedom of thousands of bonded laborers. BASE organized peaceful protests and lobbied the Nepalese government, enlisting the assistance of international and local organizations to raise awareness around the region.
Chaudhary's efforts were rewarded in February 2002, when the Nepalese government outlawed the kamaiya system of bonded labor. Thousands of Tharu were released from servitude but then forcibly evicted from the land where they lived and worked.
In an instant, families went from slavery to displacement. BASE and its partner organizations moved quickly to help shelter, feed and care for them, but a relief situation was untenable for the long term. The Tharu would once again have to adapt to an intolerable reality.
Once again, Dilli Chaudhary and BASE responded with a plan: change the Tharu from within by working with humanitarian organizations from around the world.
Confronting continued challenges
In 2006, BASE partnered with Mercy Corps to launch the Youth Initiative for Peace and Reconciliation (YIPR) program. The two organizations shared a common goal for the Tharu and other marginalized ethnic groups in western Nepal: the creation of an exploitation-free society through peace-building and community development.
Just as the program's name implies, the chief catalyst for the partnership's work is youth — and the challenges are considerable. Across Nepal, more than 38 percent of the working-age population is under the age of 24. At the same time, Nepal's unemployment rate is at least 42 percent, and the national literacy rate is less than 50 percent.
Because of the lingering effects of lifelong bonded labor, a decade-long conflict and the prejudices of the caste system, the Tharu people are near the bottom of these already-discouraging statistics. For the most part unschooled, they have no ready entry into Nepal's workforce.
There are also cultural details and traditions that continue to keep Tharu youth — and especially women — from finishing school.
"We Tharu see a lot of educated but unemployed people around, so we often jump to the conclusion that school is a waste of time," said Dharma Raj Rana, BASE's education coordinator.
"People also think that education interrupts traditional arranged marriages. Tharu boys and girls are often engaged at age 10 but don't know about those arrangements until they're closer to 18," Rana continued. "Meanwhile, the parents have made all of the financial and other arrangements far in advance. These parents oppose school because it breaks down these systems. Youth become choosy and defiant, they say."
"And women are not as free as men — they have to stay around the house," said Shova Thakali, Mercy Corps' YIPR program officer. "Parents think that, if their daughters are exposed to broader society, they might ‘spoil.' And so they're forbidden to go to school."
Faced not only with the damages of bonded labor and conflict, but also with the constraints of Tharu culture, BASE and Mercy Corps came up with a plan to convince parents — and to involve both young men and women.
Creating equal opportunity while respecting culture
Through YIPR, Mercy Corps and BASE support youth as they seek to find creative alternatives to being drawn into still-lingering conflicts. This is accomplished through helping youth develop conflict management skills, communicate more effectively, have more positive attitudes, and believe in their ability to help promote peace and take part in decisions which affect their lives. This empowerment enables them to take charge of their future, both collectively and individually.
Since unemployment is one of the area's biggest problems, youth are eager to find and start job skills training. Through learning the tools of a trade — such as computer troubleshooting, electronics, automotive repair, or agriculture — they can prepare themselves to start their own businesses and begin to earn a living wage.
There is a distinct effort in the village groups to engage women in a different range of income-earning activities, such as livestock management, fish farming and tailoring. These activities give young women the opportunity to learn valuable skills without forgoing their parents' wishes.
Mercy Corps and BASE currently work with youth groups in 820 villages across western Nepal, helping more than 15,000 youth find better economic opportunities and rebuild peaceful communities. About 35 percent of participants are young women — a number that both organizations are confident will continue to rise.
It is fitting that a movement started by a committed, idealistic 14-year-old named Dilli Chaudhary is now being led by thousands of eager Tharu youth. Literacy classes — for youth and adults alike — are still very much a part of the strategy to succeed. And, with help from Mercy Corps, BASE is creating a new generation of progress: workers, activists and educators that will not only inspire their communities but change their nation.