By Laura Sheahen

Madhu Tharu used to be a bonded labourer. With the help of a Caritas loan, she now runs a roadside snack shop. Photo by Laura Sheahen/Caritas

Thirty-year-old Madhu Tharu has been working for other people since she was a little girl. A bonded labourer in a village of bonded labourers, the Nepali woman basically belonged to her landlord. The system of serfdom that trapped her wasn’t abolished in Nepal until the early 2000s. So for years, she worked all day. Her brothers, at least, were allowed to go to school. As a kamalari–a servant girl– she wasn’t.

As teenagers, Madhu and thousands of girls like her were prime targets of traffickers, criminals who sell girls into forced prostitution or forced labour. As adults, women like Madhu are prime candidates for overseas work as housemaids. Uneducated and impoverished, they sometimes face physical and sexual abuse when working for Middle Eastern families in places like Kuwait.

Though some women do indeed earn money when they go abroad, the risks of migration are serious.  Even in the best cases, where employers treat women well and pay them fairly, mothers must leave their children behind when they go abroad. So Caritas tries to give women options that allow them to remain home.

A Caritas Nepal programme gave Madhu a small loan. She’s using it to run a tiny roadside kiosk that sells snacks. Her two sons can go to school, and her husband, a rickshaw driver, doesn’t have to work so hard.

Sumitra Bista was similarly vulnerable. “I have one son I have to support. My husband married another wife,” she says. “I used to have a small tea shop, but with the Caritas support I could buy more supplies and expand. The tea shop bloomed.” Working from 5 am to 8 pm, Sumitra sells about 100 cups of tea every day.

“There was no tea shop here before she came. She’s an entrepreneur,” says a man sitting on a bench in her shop. “People from the clinic nearby come here. The tea tastes good.”

Yam Kumari Bhat, left, was going to go abroad as a maid. A Caritas staffer urged her to use a Caritas loan to run a business. She now runs this tea and donut shop. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

The small loans are helping poor women—especially widows and those with sick or absent husbands—to stay with their children and be self-supporting. The loans also mean the women don’t have to take job offers that are suspect. Though some women find a happy ending when they go overseas, the female face of migration doesn’t always look very good.

Madhu is proud that she’s now running her own business. No longer an indentured servant, she is her own boss. “I used to work in other people’s houses. Now I don’t have to,” she says. “I’m happy I can earn money.”

Laura Sheahen, a Communications Officer for Caritas Internationalis, recently visited migration programmes in Nepal.