Encircled by a group of six girls, Sanita Lama snacked on chocolate pastries as her laughter filled the room. To her left, Jaya Bjandari, discussed his newfound interest in cricket and cycling with another student.
From afar, the two 19-year-olds appeared to fit the role of average teenagers.
However, only nine years ago, both Nepali citizens were among the thousands of exploited child workers who are trafficked, kidnapped or sold into bondage into their native country’s carpet looms and factories.
As part of a four-city U.S. tour sponsored by RugMark, an international nonprofit organization working to end illegal child labor in South Asia’s $1.2 billion carpet industry, Lama and Bjandari shared their personal stories with the University of Miami community Monday at the Storer Auditorium.
“We want to connect Americans on a very personal level to child labor,” said Nina Smith, executive director of RugMark Foundation USA. “We want consumers to use their economic clout to end child labor, which they can do by buying only certified rugs that have a Rugmark label on them.”
Nearly 220 million children worldwide, ages 5 to 17, are involved in cheap manual labor where government enforcement of child labor laws is weak. Many of these adolescents develop health problems, such as deformities and respiratory diseases, as a result of malnutrition, confinement in cramped sheds and inhalation of wool fibers.
“I worked from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. everyday,” said Lama, who at 8 years old became a child slave in eastern Nepal after her mother and sister’s death. “I wasn’t given enough to eat, so when they did feed us I would eat very fast.”
Often, children endure physical and emotional abuse from their employers, who set their wages at a few pennies a day.
“I was beaten because I couldn’t wake up in the mornings,” said Bjandari, who began work in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, when he was 9 years old.
Since its establishment in 1995, RugMark’s efforts have freed and provided educational opportunities to more than 300,000 children, such as Lama and Bjandari. In Nepal, the use of child labor in carpet manufacturing has decreased from 11 percent to 3 percent in the span of a decade.
Lama now teaches English, mathematics and Nepali to adult carpet workers, while Bjandari has plans to pursue higher education in a private institution in order to fulfill his dream of becoming a social worker.
“Sanita and Jaya are incredible examples of what happens when you give kids a chance to flourish in the world,” said Nina Smith.
Joanna Suarez may be contacted at email@example.com.