Twelve-year-old Ashram Chaudhary lives in a remote corner of western Nepal, where he spends his days working the land. At night he shares a mud hut with his four brothers and sisters.
Until recently, Ashram and his siblings all worked for the local landowner, not for wages, but in exchange for a little food.
The family were trapped in the kumaiya system of debt bondage, which condemns generations to slavery in a Hindu-style society rigidly divided by caste. Poverty, illiteracy and ignorance keep an estimated 100,000 low-caste Nepalese in thrall to high-caste landlords in this manner.
Ashram's grandfather borrowed 7,000 rupees, a debt that Ashram inherited when his father died. His master said Ashram owed him double the original sum (about Pounds 150), including interest and a growing list of "expenses".
According to Nepali human rights activist Sushil Pyakurel: "Very poor families are kept trapped in a cycle of debt that they can never repay and can be bought and sold like animals."
Pyakurel is one of the founders of INSEC, a human rights charity set up 10 years ago as part of Nepal's pro-democracy movement. He joined forces with the British charity, Anti-Slavery International, to compile a report that highlights the practice of debt bondage around the world.
"Adults and young children suffer great abuse, but they accept it because they do not know any other life," Pyakurel said. "When we tell them about freedom they ask us what it is. When we explain, they ask us how they will eat and live if they are freed."
Human rights workers converse with the masters as well as the enslaved families to prepare the ground for change. They provide education and then help the emancipated find paid work.
Thanks to INSEC, Ashram and his siblings are now free labourers. They have all learned to read and write and know about human rights. To date, 1,200 children in the western region of Nepal have been liberated from debt bondage, but the problem is not confined to remote areas. "Successive governments have said that debt bondage only affects a few thousand families in one area, but it can be found among untouchable communities throughout the country," Pyakurel said.
Human rights organisations in Nepal are lobbying for the abolition of debt bondage and other forms of slavery, and for a minimum wage and land reform.
For information on debt bondage, contact Anti-Slavery International, tel: 0171-924 9555