Dressed in a checkered trench coat and with a yellow scarf loosely wrapped around her neck, Laxmi Chaudhary exudes confidence as she walks into her office in Ghorahi, a small town in Nepal's southwestern Dang district. 

Not long ago, the petite 22-year-old was a domestic slave. Now, she is returning from a trip to clusters of villages that dot the green hills, river valleys and agricultural plains of the district, where she fights to ease the conditions that led her into slavery. 

As a field motivator, Chaudhary travels to rural hinterlands encouraging villagers to become members of cooperatives that help provide low interest loans for investment. She tells women about the advantages of investing in the scheme and renews the memberships of those who have already signed up.

This is part of the life she has built along with hundreds of other girls who were freed from their lives as Kamlaris, the Nepali label for female bonded laborers. 

The businesses they are now involved in are wide-ranging: beauty parlors, grocery stores, vegetable farms, butcheries, even motorbike repair shops.

In a practice that continued for decades, hundreds of girls, some as young as six, from indigenous Tharu families -- inhabitants of the five districts neighboring Dang -- were forced into backbreaking labor as indentured servants for the country’s wealthy.

Chaudhary was seven when her father, Khushi Ram Chaudhary, the patriarch of a family of 10, bonded her to a school teacher’s family in a small town in the same district.

The teacher ran a rice mill and had a livestock farm.

“I used to wake up at four in the morning. Then, I cooked food for the workers of the rice mill. By eight, I would go to the field to collect fodder for the cattle,” said Chaudhary, who spent five years as a bonded laborer until she was rescued 10 years ago.

“During the day, I had to clean dishes, do the laundry with my hands, sweep the floors and look after the cattle,” she said, recalling that it would be midnight by the time she went to bed.

Such servitude would have continued unabated had a local reporter not highlighted the issue with a chilling description of the mid-January Maghi festival that sees Tharu girls traded in Dang and four other districts.

In December 1999, the daily Kantipur newspaper published a report on this dark side of the Maghi festival, which the Tharus celebrate to mark the harvest season.

This prompted Som Paneru, a Kathmandu-based social worker, to investigate the practice and within a week of reading the report, he headed to Dang.

“Every single Tharu household had sent their daughters to the rich people’s houses in far away towns. I had read about black people on sale in the United States. What I saw in Dang wasn’t much different,” said Paneru, now the president of the Nepal Youth Foundation.

The reality sunk in, he says, as he spoke to the impoverished Tharu villagers, members of a formerly prosperous community driven out of their farmlands by high-caste hill immigrants, who pushed them into penury.

“Parents sent them away in exchange for money because the girls were considered a liability,” he told Anadolu Agency.  

When he promised the parents to clothe and educate their children, they nodded their agreement.

Still, the challenge was to find the households that employed the Kamlaris. Paneru’s organization recruited Tharu volunteers, calling them "motivators" to locate the households.

In January 2000, when the first group of 32 slave girls was rescued from Dang, the country was ravaged by a civil war and venturing into the villages of the district worst-hit by the insurgency was fraught with risks.

Paneru said the reluctant parents gave in after they calculated that the charity group was taking care of the girls’ education and even supporting them for livelihood skills.

By 2003, the organization had rescued 2,000 bonded girl laborers, but the thousands more remained trapped inside strangers’ homes.

That year, he recruited a local social worker, Man Bahadur Chhetri, who had honed his skills by helping to emancipate women from the now abolished tradition called Deuki, in which young girls were offered to a Hindu temple in the far western region of Nepal.

While the system of Kamaiya, a similar bonded labor tradition for Tharu men, was abolished in 2000, the Supreme Court on a petition filed by Paneru, issued a verdict outlawing the Kamlari practice only in 2006. The numbers of those rescued grew in leaps and bounds.

“The verdict was a huge achievement for us. We requested donors to fund our programs and launched a broader campaign,” Paneru said. “We provided legal aid for them; we lodged complaints against the employers, we constructed schools and hostels for the girls.”

According to Paneru, 13,700 Tharu girls, out of an estimated 20,000 forced into slavery, have been rescued so far.

Still, with the number of middle class families growing, the tradition has moved to big cities such as the capital Kathmandu.

“This tradition seems to fit the pattern of middle class family’s growing demand for domestic help,” he said, adding that the majority of employers were found to be government officials, politicians and even the employees of charities.  

The small initiative has turned into a large-scale movement, staging protests and strikes in Kathmandu and elsewhere, demanding an end to the enslavement and discrimination.

The campaign has given birth to a few who have gone on to become leaders. Notable among them is Shanta Chaudhary, a former lawmaker. Manjita Chaudhary heads the Freed Kamlari Development Forum, a rights group based in Dang.

Seventeen-year-old Somati Chaudhary, who was freed from the domestic servitude three years ago, runs Ronisha Beauty Parlor in Narayanpur, a small highway bazaar in Dang.

She took a loan of 50,000 Nepali rupees ($500) from a cooperative run by the Forum, and earns about 20,000 ($200) rupees a month.

“I get more customers during festivals and wedding seasons. My brothers work in foreign countries. But to me this is good; I am not only on my own, but also supporting my family,” she said.

Anadolu Agency