KATHMANDU, Nepal - Nine-year-old Manjita Chaudhary had never spent a night away from her parents when her father sold her to a Nepalese policeman for US$25 (S$31.90).
She left her family in western Nepal and travelled some 200 kilometres to her employer's home near the Indian border.
Her harsh new life began at 4am, the start of a daily routine in which she would clean her employer's house, wash dishes, cook and then go to his relatives' homes to do the same, before falling asleep just shy of midnight.
"I couldn't cope with the work, so my employer's wife would beat me with pots and pans, and threaten to sell me to another man," Chaudhary, now 22, told AFP.
"I was so scared, I couldn't even cry in front of them, I would just cry quietly in the bathroom," she said.
When she met her father a year later, she begged to return home, but her father, a bonded labourer, said they couldn't afford to raise her or her younger sister, whom they had also sold into domestic slavery.
Nepal's indentured "kamlari" girls - some as young as six - are among the Himayalan nation's most vulnerable citizens, subject to beatings and sexual violence while being kept as virtual prisoners by their employers.
Every January, when Nepal's Tharu community celebrates the Maghi festival, marking the end of winter, destitute Tharu families also sign contracts worth as little as 2,500 rupees (S$51.80) a year, leasing their daughters to work in strangers' homes.
The annual tradition is unusual even in a region where illegal, bonded slavery and child labour are rife and where it is common to see children working in tea-shops, homes and even on construction sites.
A century ago the Tharu, said to be descendants of the Buddha, owned their farms and lived in relative isolation in the malaria-infested Terai plains, enjoying a natural resistance to the disease that the higher castes lacked.
But when malaria was eradicated from the fertile region in 1960, the Tharu were displaced by higher-caste farmers, becoming indebted serfs in their own land.
Many, like Chaudhary's impoverished parents, resorted to selling their daughters into domestic slavery, establishing the kamlari tradition, which, although outlawed in 2006, persists across the country.
Chaudhary worked for three years as a kamlari, enduring violence and sexual harassment, before activists from the US-based Nepal Youth Foundation approached her father and offered to support and educate his daughters if he ended their contracts.
At the age of 12, Chaudhary learnt to read and write. Today, the business undergraduate cuts a confident figure, fashionably dressed in a trench coat and conversant in three languages.
But the childhood scars remain, compelling her to volunteer as an advocate for kamlari rights.
"I was robbed of my childhood. It was a horrible time and I will do whatever I can to end this practice, to free other girls," she said.
Uphill battle for freedom
Although the kamlari tradition originated in the plains of southwestern Nepal, activists say it now survives on the patronage of wealthy families in the capital.
Kamal Guragain, legal officer at the Nepalese non-profit CWISH (Children-Women In Social Service and Human Rights), estimates that Nepal is home to at least 1,000 kamlaris, with nearly half of them working in Kathmandu.
So far, no employer has been punished for hiring or mistreating kamlaris, despite Guragain filing a stack of cases demanding prosecution and compensation to victims.
"Kamlaris still exist because their employers are not jailed or prosecuted, even though they are breaking the law," Guragain told AFP.
After a 12-year-old kamlari died of burns in the custody of her employer last March, sparking huge protests, the government said it would end the illegal practice.
But nearly a year later, little has changed.
Ram Prasad Bhattarai, spokesman for the ministry of women, children and social welfare, told AFP that the activists were "too provocative and rights-oriented".
"We are focused on empowering kamlaris by offering them education and training opportunities as beauticians and seamstresses (after they leave work)," he said. But "we have no intention of going to every household in Kathmandu and organising raids," he added.
At one of the raids in Kathmandu, activists rescued a nervous teenager, Jayarani Tharu, who had worked as a kamlari for so long that she couldn't remember when she left home.
Her employer, who runs a furniture business and owns a restaurant, paid her father 6000 rupees a year for his daughter.
As former kamlaris, including Chaudhary, helped the young woman pack up her belongings, her employer's wife, Ramba Uprety burst into tears.
"I treated her like she was one of my own children. That's why I don't feel like I have done anything wrong," Uprety told AFP.
Her employers were good people, never violent or cruel to her, Tharu said.
Still, it rankled to see tutors visit the house to teach the employers' two children, while she slaved away in the background.
"I did feel bad about missing school, but then I got used to it... they had paid me to work, not to study," she said.
"Now I am wondering if I will be able to do anything with my life. I have lost so many years."