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Nepal: Free from Bonded Labor

LWF Nepal Program Marks 25 Years of Service

Raghu Ram Mahar was born into slavery.

The eldest son of 75 year-old Hajari Ram Mahar, of Nagarjun in Baitadi district, far-west Nepal, Raghu inherited his father’s status, but not his submissive nature.

Today he is a free man, thanks to his own determination and the work of a community-based organization (CBO) supported by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Nepal.

The elder Mahar was a Haliya or bonded farm laborer, tied to the land of his master. He borrowed 7,000 Nepali rupees many years ago. This debt was sold to others, and he borrowed more, such that when his working days ended, he still owed money to his master.

Raghu automatically became a Haliya because his father was one, and consequently, a slave to Hajari’s owner. Quarrels between owners caused more problems for father and son. They were treated very badly.

However, Raghu decided to fight against this slavery through membership in the Haliya Mukti Samaj group, which advocates for Haliyas’ rights. Discovering that it was not just his own freedom that was at stake, he joined others in local and national campaigns to change things.

Eventually, Raghu saw the government free his community in 2008.

Right to Freedom

With his father’s support and hopes of a better future for his own son, Raghu still fights for his community. No longer willing to remain poor, oppressed and marginalized, he joined a legal education course sponsored by the LWF Department for World Service (DWS) program in Nepal. Today, he teaches others about their right to freedom.

As DWS Nepal marks 25 years of service in the South Asian country on 26 August (today), the LWF representative there Mr Marceline P. Rozario says CBOs such as Haliya Mukti Samaj are celebrating alongside because of the many positive changes supported by the organization. He pays tribute to members of such groups and various donors “for their meaningful and spontaneous participation” in the program’s work.

“At this juncture, when we look back, we clearly see some of the remarkable achievements that our organization has made over the years which include abolition of the bonded labor system, women emancipation, reduced caste-based discrimination, and emergence of self-governed institutions of the poor and oppressed,” notes Rozario.

One of DWS Nepal’s notable achievements is the close involvement in resettling more than 100,000 refugees from Bhutan since 1991, and caring for thousands of new arrivals from Tibet since 2005.

The LWF program currently works closely with 25 CBOs and nine federations comprising the poor, marginalized and vulnerable groups in the remote areas of Nepal. It has played a major role in many critical development and justice efforts in the country, guided by a rights-based approach that emphasizes empowerment of individuals and communities so that they can gain a sense of ownership of their grassroots organizations and work toward sustaining them.

As part of the silver jubilee celebration, volunteers from DWS Nepal’s various networks had planted more than 20,000 tree saplings by mid-2009.

Strengthening Civil Society

LWF/DWS director Rev. Eberhard Hitzler underscores the organization’s solidarity with the Nepali people “through some very turbulent, and at times revolutionary periods,” and its vital contribution to building democratic institutions of governance. “We are convinced that a vigorous civil society has a vital continuing role to play to consolidate this democratic progress, by empowering Nepali communities to realize their rights and achieve a higher quality of life,” he writes in a congratulatory letter to the program’s staff on the jubilee anniversary.

Hitzler praises DWS Nepal for being “on the cutting edge of development thinking and practice over the years,” including best practice examples in the region and globally. He however encourages the staff to see the silver jubilee as an opportunity to take the next steps of building the local capacity with the goal to localize the LWF program, which is part of the DWS global strategy.

“We encourage you to find ways to further develop your Nepali identity and a local governance structure, as a means to make LWF Nepal even more relevant and effective in its work,” adds the DWS director.

Rozario points out that despite the significant efforts over the last 25 years, the campaign for rehabilitation and land rights for Haliyas and other initiatives continue. Nepal, he adds, remains one of the world’s poorest countries, where hunger, malnutrition, discrimination, human rights violations, culture of impunity, and widening gap between the rich and poor continue unabated.

DWS Nepal is one of the field programs carrying out LWF’s humanitarian work in 36 countries throughout the world. It cooperates closely with Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, the Geneva-based churches’ emergency network, of which the LWF is a founding member.

Beena Kharel, DWS Nepal communication and documentation manager, contributed to this article.


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