By Gena Somra
Nepalgunj, Nepal (CNN) – At first blush, one could mistake 88-year-old Olga Murray, a petite white-haired woman with a thousand megawatt smile, as something other than what she is: a passionate force to be reckoned with.
She may be tiny, but don't be fooled. Murray is a powerhouse.
The sun is blazing, the heat daunting, but as she walks through a remote area of Nepalgunj nestled along the Indian border, infamous for being the "hottest place in Nepal", Murray shows little sign of discomfort.
She is energized. And it is the work she has done here she says, that is one of her proudest achievements.
In this tiny corner of the world, far from the trappings of modern life, Murray's Nepal Youth Foundation has rescued more than 11,000 girls from the practice of "Kamlari" and the life of indentured servitude it brings.
"When we discovered the practice in 1999, we decided we would try to eradicate it," she says, matter of fact.
Murray has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Breaking down barriers and overcoming obstacles is something she has been doing for almost 50 years. And she's not about to quit now.
When she graduated from George Washington University Law School in 1954, there were very few women in her chosen field. She says then, firms were more interested in how many words female candidates could type, rather than asking about their understanding of the law. "They weren't looking for us to join them as attorneys," she says. "They were looking for us to become their secretaries."
Undeterred by the cultural climate of the time, Murray aimed high, aced her first and only job interview out of law school, and was offered a position as the staff attorney for the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court where she spent 37 years practicing law.
But it was after she retired, Murray says, that her life really got busy.
Just how she got from the hustle and bustle of life as a high-powered attorney in the United States, to a far-flung village in Nepalgunj rescuing young girls from slavery is an interesting tale of how a chance event can change someone's destiny.
Breaking her leg on a retirement trek to the Himalayas, and having to slow down long enough to recuperate, "was one of the best things that ever happened to me," Murray reflects.
At the time, Murray was 62, and Nepal had already begun to capture her heart. She was using her own money to give college scholarships to young orphan boys she had met on one of her previous trekking expeditions. But the longer she stayed, the more need she saw. Food, medicine, healthcare, education – the children around her day after day needed it all. And that spurred Murray, broken leg and all, into action.
Before long, Murray's retirement had turned into a full time job, and in 1990 the Nepal Youth Foundation was born. More than two decades later, the NYF continues to flourish. Murray's organization runs orphanages for young boys and girls, offers scholarships for education and provides nutrition training for poor families so that they can learn to grow their own healthy food off the land. In turn, that empowers them to become self-sufficient and helps to reduce the epidemic of malnutrition facing the impoverished nation.
In this village, like many others in the Terai region of Nepalgunj, Kamlari was once a common and accepted practice. Young mothers and fathers once had to make the difficult choice between selling their daughters to wealthy landowners, who often beat and abused them, or seeing their family to starve.
Murray and her foundation gave the families in these villages an economic solution so that they will never be forced to make the awful decision to sell their daughters again.
"We came into these villages and we offered each family a baby pig or a baby goat if they would bring their daughter home and allow us to send her to school. And little by little we helped show them there was a different way," she explains.
Baghwati, 15, is one of those girls. "I want to be a social worker," she smiles, her voice full of life, "because then I can help other girls like me."
Not long ago, Baghwati and her family had no hope. Baghwati's mother Sadya has six daughters, five of them sold as Kamlaris. Sadya first sold Baghwati when she was only nine.
"I had no choice because it was the only way of earning income for the family," she says. "There was no money at home – not even for food. I had to do it, but every time I had to send one of my daughters away, I cried."
Baghwati's hopeful smile fades as she recounts her life working as a Kamlari. "I didn't want to go, I left home crying," she says softly. "But my family didn't have any food to eat. So they had no choice.
"Once I was there I had to work all kind of jobs, washing dishes, looking after the baby. I did not go to school. Once you are a Kamlari, you have to work hard."
The conditions were so bad, Baghwati says, that she ran away and returned home. But her family had no choice but to send her back to the very people she was running from, because they had a contract to fulfill. They had been paid to give up their daughter. And they had no way of repaying the money.
In the end Baghwati would be sold again before the Nepal Youth Foundation intervened.
The income generated by the goat the NYF offered Sadya and her family in exchange for their promise has allowed Baghwati to return home, and go to school. And she is optimistic about more than just her own future.
"My youngest sister will never know a life of bondage," she says proudly.
"They are going to be different women than their mothers were, and their daughters will be different women than they were, and that's the thrill of it," Murray says. "To reunite the families, that itself is a huge, huge wonderful thing and that makes me very, very happy."
Sitting next to Baghwati, her arm around her, Murray looks at the young girl and reflects on the turn of fate that brought her here in the first place. "Who could ever think that 26 years ago … I'd be here now?" she muses. "Life takes very odd twists and turns and this is one of them."
"I had no clue…" she says, a smile slowly spreading across her face, "but it feels good.