Getting a new chance after a life in bonded labour

March 25, 2022

Shanti and her husband come from a poor community in Kanchanpur, Nepal. In exchange of a piece of land to build a shelter, they got caught in debt bondage. But thanks to Shanti’s unwavering determination, and with the support of the ILO Bridge Project, she became a mason, succeeding in offering a decent life to her family while challenging gender biases.

Photo: Shanti Danuk © ILO

My name is Shanti, I am 45, I live in Kanchanpur in Nepal. My husband has been working as a bonded labourer until his poor health condition forced him to stop at almost 70. If I had had a choice, I would never have agreed to become a bonded labourer, but it was inevitable. We could not foresee any alternative for us, until recently.

Sometimes life does not provide you with choices. We had no land of our own, and we could not afford to rent or buy land either to build our home. Therefore, when a landowner offered us a small piece of land to build a temporary shelter in exchange of lifetime services, we agreed to become bonded labourers.

While my husband ploughed the field, I planted and harvested the grains on the farming land. We were paid in kind, mostly with grains, but this was not enough to feed the family. At times, my children had to go to sleep without any food. Likewise, the landowner did not support our medical expenses. We had to bear it. Our condition was so miserable that I could not afford to buy a notebook or pencils for my children’s education. We were in a desperate situation.

As I was looking for a better job, I came across the information on the masonry training program hosted by the Haliya Free Society. The enrolment process, however, was not easy for me. To apply for the training, the interested applicant had to submit a citizenship card and a photo. I had to go through a difficult process to get the citizenship card, as I did not have any land ownership or other official documents to prove my identity. Finally, after much struggle, the officer at the district office agreed to issue the citizenship acknowledging my husband’s citizenship card.

I was excited to attend the training. There were 26 participants, only women except one man. In the initial phase, we learned about the principle of business ethics. Gradually, the trainer broadened our knowledge about the usage of bricks, sand and cement. During the training, I learnt the process of mixing concrete, arranging and positioning the bricks during construction, measuring the size of the bricks and using plumb bob to measure the distance from the wall. We also received training on the measures of digging and constructing the house foundation. It included knowing the depth for laying a foundation, followed by selecting the correct material and applying it accurately. Now I can use different masonry tools for construction and measurement. The masonry training has made me competent.

Until now, I have taken up 15 construction assignments and earned $2,530. I have invested a share of this income in buying land and building a house. In many jobs, men earn almost the double of what women do in the same job. However, there is no discrimination from my employer. We receive an equal salary, irrespective of our gender, which is $6 a day. Every month, I deposit $9.26 in a local cooperative after deducting the cost for my husband’s medication and household stuff.

I am satisfied with my work. Following my example, other women have shown great interest in this profession, while others are still hesitant as it is often perceived as a job that women are unable to do. I never thought that I would be able to complete the training but today, I have become a mason.  Now I want to continue. If I get an opportunity, I will enrol in level 2 training. It will help me widen my area of work to building pillars and roofs.


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