This story was written by the ILO Newsroom For official ILO statements and speeches, please visit our “Statements and Speeches” section.

Our impact, their voices

Breaking bonded labour and gender roles in Nepal

The abolition of bonded labour has encouraged gender equality in Nepal. The ILO’s Bridge Project in Nepal supports workers’ transition from bonded labour to decent work and provides women with skills in traditionally masculine areas of work.

Feature | 20 March 2018
KATHMANDU, Nepal (ILO News) – Punam Rana, 22, is a freed Kamaiya woman training to be a carpenter. The Kamaiya system was a form of bonded labour in which a worker and their family entered into an informal contract with a landlord to do agricultural work in return for payment-in-kind, such as a small percentage of the harvest.

Punam Rana and her family were free from the Kamaiya system
In times of hardship, Kamaiyas would have to indebt themselves to their landlord by taking loans. The informal nature of the arrangement and the inherent power imbalance that underlies the relationship between the Kamaiya and their landlord leaves Kamaiyas vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, often being subjected to poor working conditions and long-term debt bondage which carries over across generations.

In 2002, under mounting pressures from activists, the NGO community and workers themselves, the Government of Nepal abolished the Kamaiya system, freeing all Kamaiya families and offering them 2-5 kattha of land each (679-1690 square meters), a size sufficient for the construction of a small house, but not large enough to allow for subsistence farming. Punam's family was one of those recipients and they currently own three kattha of land.

Bringing freed Kamaiyas into the labour market

Land ownership is only the start of the rehabilitation process for freed Kamaiyas. The socio-economic factors which force workers to accept the poor conditions under the Kamaiya system often remain, and the limited availability of employment opportunities in rural Nepal place former Kamaiya families under significant economic pressure.

Like many former Kamaiyas, Punam's father worked as a subsistence farmer. However, when he was injured and became unable to work, the responsibility of providing for her family fell on Punam, as the oldest child in the family. Despite having completed year 11 in school, with no further formal education and training, she was unable to find work.

Born in a family who was in debt bondage, Punam was reached out to by Bhim Kaini, a social mobiliser for UCEP Nepal. UCEP Nepal aims to improve living conditions for underprivileged children and has recently partnered with the ILO to provide training to formerly bonded laborers as part of the ILO's Bridge project.

Punam in a practical session of carpentry training in Banka, Kanchanpur
© N. Bhattarai, ILO/Bridge Project
The Bridge project, funded by the US Department of Labor, aims to provide livelihood support to former bonded labourers from the districts of Kanchanpur and Bajura in the far-western region of Nepal. Through the project, freed bonded labourers receive skill and employability enhancement trainings, after which they are linked to the jobs market through work placements, or are given additional support to facilitate self-employment. Trainings span across 14 trades in the sectors of construction, agriculture and transportation. By the end of 2018, the Bridge Project expects to train 600 workers in Kanchanpur and Bajura.

As a social mobiliser working for the project, Bhim is able to reach out to communities of former bonded workers and refer them to the Bridge project's livelihood and employment services. Punam met all selection criteria to be a beneficiary of livelihood support from the Bridge Project and Bhim recommended her to a two-month’s carpentry training run by UCEP. Once her training is completed, Punam will be placed on a three-month apprenticeship, after which she will be employed by the company. She will also have the choice of completing a second level of training, which would qualify her to work as a carpentry trainer herself to supplement her income.

"Punam is a very hard working trainee and has expressed a desire to become a principal trainer in the future so that she can share her knowledge with other women from her community", said Mahesh Katharia, the principal trainer for UCEP.

Breaking traditional gender roles

Punam (second from left) in group of carpentry training in Banka, Kanchanpur
© Bhim Kaini
As well as providing crucial livelihood support to previously bonded labourers, the Bridge project provides women with opportunities for skill development in non-traditional fields. Preliminary reports on the trainings provided in Kanchanpur show high levels of women's participation in non-traditional occupations such as masonry and carpentry, women's participation reaching up to 70 per cent in some cases.

Jobs in these sectors have traditionally been reserved for men as gendered expectations around the kind of work women should do persist, particularly in rural communities. Nevertheless, things are changing. With increased access to education and more men leaving Nepal to find work abroad, new opportunities for women's employment are opening up.

Punam is positive about the changes occurring in her community and across Nepal. "See, our President, chair of the Constituent Assembly and Chief Justice all are women. If they can take up these positions then why shouldn’t I be able to take a job as a carpenter,” said Punam.

The latest estimates indicate that among the 40 million victims of modern slavery worldwide, about 25 million were in forced labour, women and girls being disproportionately affected. The International Labour Organization's Protocol on Forced Labour establishes measures to prevent forced labour, protect victims and provide them with redress, punish perpetrators, and work in partnership with others to end forced labour. But more countries, including Nepal, still have to ratify it. More on

For more information, please contact

Narayan Prasad Bhattarai, ILO National Project Coordinator in Nepal
Tel: +977-5555777 (ext-304)