A parade of young Nepalese girls, about 900 strong, in blue school uniforms or long swirling shirts marched through the village square in Dang Valley earlier this year. They chanted and held banners that said: "Let's send our girls to school!" and "An end to bonded labor!"
The march was part of the Maghe Festival, a month-long event in January when families in this western valley look forward to warmer weather and family reunions.
Traditionally, Maghe has also been the time when kamlaris - girls who work as indentured servants in Nepal's larger cities - return home to visit their families.
Until a few years ago, the square was filled with fathers negotiating with city labor contractors for their daughters to work as kamlaris for the coming year. A girl's average annual wage: $50. The money would be sent home to support the family's remaining children. But this annual custom has started to change. Pressure to stop the practice of indenturing daughters has come from two sources: hundreds of former kamlaris and the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation (NYOF), a Nepali-American nonprofit group.
Since 2001, NYOF has been offering local fathers a piglet in exchange for a promise to keep their daughters at home and in school for the year. There is an economic advantage: A piglet fed on table scraps can net a family $100 at auction by year's end. Since the piglet program began, more than 1,600 girls have been spared from bonded labor, including 500 this year.
Still, an estimated 20,000 girls from the Dang and Deukhari valleys work as kamlaris. They mostly work in homes doing chores, heavy cleaning and cooking. Kamlaris have been subjected to different forms of cruelty. There have been reports of severe injuries on the job as well as sexual and physical abuse.
Selling girls into servitude had been practiced for generations, so "no one could see anything wrong with the practice," says Olga Murray, NYOF's founder and a retired judge from Sausalito, Calif. "It's a pitifully poor region, and the fathers could hardly afford to feed the girls, much less pay for school uniforms."
Ms. Murray knew the practice was not just morally wrong, but also illegal. Nepal has laws against children under 14 working outside the home and subscribes to international laws on human trafficking. Under Murray's direction, the nonprofit group began to file lawsuits. The labor contractors were in trouble - and so were the fathers. The annual auction went underground. Quiet deals replaced a public auction, with labor contractors going house to house instead of plying their trade in the square.
Nepal is not the only developing nation where children are considered revenue sources. In countries such as India, Pakistan, and Malaysia children also are being sold as indentured servants.
In Nepal, it is easy to see why renting or selling girls appeals to fathers.
This is a dry, subsistence-farming region. Houses are made out of mud and thatched with brush from the fields. The only light inside comes from kerosene lanterns or cooking fires. The struggle to feed the family is constant.
Nepal is a traditional Hindu society, and so responsibility for all financial and family matters falls to the fathers. Many see no obvious moral or economic reason to question a generations-old practice that brings much-needed cash to feed the family. After all, most of their wives and mothers were once sold as kamlaris.
Originally, NYOF planned to give each father $100 to cover a year's lost wages and pay school expenses and fees for each girl kept at home. But many mothers objected, worrying that their husbands would spend the cash on alcohol. (Drinking is a source of recreation for many rural Nepalis.) They suggested something of longer- lasting value - a piglet or a baby goat.
One piglet doesn't provide enough income to support a girl indefinitely, so NYOF is working on microcredit programs to create another source of income and reduce the chance that financially strapped fathers will backslide in future years.
So far, there are no reports of girls being freed once, only to be sent off in subsequent years as kamlaris. In contrast, reports are filtering back to NYOF from the villages of girls running away from their employers in Katmandu and pleading with their parents to let them stay in school - stunning acts of defiance compared with the docile daughters of earlier generations.
"Going to school has been very empowering for these girls, teaching them about their rights," says Murray. "It's unlikely any girl once rescued would consent to a return to bonded slavery."
The tide is turning rapidly against the practice. The girls whose parents had accepted the piglet and the other benefits provided by NYOF - a kerosene lamp with fuel, school supplies, and uniforms - have become powerful agents of change. They have mastered many classic techniques to build local awareness: marching, speaking out, passing out leaflets, demonstrating in the square, and putting on street plays that depict tearful girls being parted from their equally tearful mothers.
During this year's festival, Pralhad Kumar Dhakal, executive director of NYOF's Nepalese partner organization, saw a large group of girls wearing school uniforms, banging on the sides of a bus that was carrying six small girls away. They refused to stop until the girls were let out the door.
But the practice is not over, and fear runs high for many young girls. While NYOF had enough funds to provide families with 500 piglets this year, it could not meet the need of an additional 172 girls who contacted NYOF at the festival and begged the group to find pigs for them, too.
For those rescued from servitude, however, the future is brighter. Twelve-year-old Rama Chandari was desperate not to be sent back for a third year as a kamlari. Rama had been sold against the wishes of her mother. Her employer had let her come home for the festival, but Rama's father agreed to bond her again, despite her mother's objections.
When the NYOF representatives presented a black piglet to the family, "Rama and her mother were all smiles," says Dhakal. Like other girls in Dang "ransomed" by NYOF over the last three years, at the end of this year's month-long Maghe Festival, Rama will return to school, instead of to the life of an indentured servant.
• For more information on this program, visit www.NYOF.org