Every year in the Himalayan country of Nepal, thousands of girls are sold by their families to be bonded servants. Olga Murray, an 84-year-old American, is in the process of eliminating this custom. The organization founded by Olga uses a unique method: it offers a family a piglet or goat, which they can raise on scraps and sell for more money than they would receive for their daughter’s labor, in exchange for simply letting their daughter stay at home and get an education.
A Girl rescued by NYOF with the Goat her Family Received
The Tharu ethnic group is comprised predominantly of underprivileged farmers in rural Nepal, living in thatch huts without electricity or running water. They tend to have more children than they can feed, and many sell their daughters, some as young as six, to be servants in wealthy homes or tea shops. The bonded girls typically slave from dawn to dusk, eat leftovers, and sleep on the floor. Although many bonded girls are beaten and raped and some end up in brothels in India, the selling of daughters has been a widely accepted tradition in Tharu culture. This is now changing because of Olga Murray.
Rescued Girls in a Village School
Olga spent nearly 40 years as a staff attorney at the California State Supreme Court. During her time there, she strove to correct injustices, helping to write important decisions in the areas of children’s issues and women’s rights. She first visited Nepal in 1984 as a tourist to go trekking in the Himalaya, and discovered far more injustices to rectify. Shocked by the terribly impoverished condition of children in the villages, Olga found a new passion in her life. She returned to Nepal the next year, but rather than simply going on vacation, she was determined to improve the livelihoods of needy children. She started giving scholarships to boys in a desperately under-funded orphanage, as well as to disabled children who needed to attend special schools to provide for their needs. As the number of scholarships grew, Olga founded the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation (NYOF) to transform the lives of disadvantaged Nepalese children in an organized way. Today, NYOF continues to provide extremely vulnerable youth in Nepal with human rights, education, health care, and loving support.
As energetic and determined as ever, Olga Murray still leads NYOF in what she considers her “second career,” although this career consists of being a full-time volunteer. She spends most of each year living in Kathmandu, a city studded with ancient temples where local people perform colorful daily rituals and where the streets are frequently clogged with political demonstrations or traffic. Amid this chaos and noise, Olga finds a true sense of home because she is surrounded by many of the children her organization supports. She often spends time at the two children’s homes in Kathmandu that NYOF runs, where kids run up to her to give hugs and lovingly call her “Olga Mommy.” Olga also visits NYOF’s Nutritional Rehabilitation Home (NRH) in Kathmandu, where severely malnourished children and their mothers come to stay for an average of five weeks. While they live at the NRH, the children are restored to their full weight and health, while the mothers are trained in nutrition and child care to ensure that malnutrition does not recur.
In the vastly different landscape of remote, rural Nepal, many Tharu fathers sell their daughters for around $75 per year. Olga Murray and NYOF’s staff spread throughout Tharu communities to search for girls who are being bonded. When they find one, they inform her parents of the abhorrent conditions in which many indentured girls live, and offer a piglet or goat in exchange for letting the girl stay home and go to school. Most parents are easily convinced to join the program, although Olga and her staff often encounter resistance and animosity from the wealthy people who buy the girls and the middlemen who facilitate the sales.
Girls Talking About their Experiences in Bondage