"I constantly wish I could be run over by a car and killed," said Rekha Biswakarma, a traumatised waitress, who works at a cabin bar in the capital, Kathmandu. She was raped by a client and threatened by her employer to keep quiet or lose her job.
Her colleagues told the 20-year-old to forget the incident, warning that she would never be able to afford the court costs and had no evidence to prove the crime.
But forgetting such an ordeal has proven impossible. Biswakarma has tried to commit suicide several times but stopped herself for the sake of her five-year-old daughter.
Two years ago, she and her husband arrived in the capital to escape their impoverished lives in Makwanpur District where they constantly suffered food shortages for lack of income. They depended on her husband's work for a local farm and barely made US$1 a day.
Her situation deteriorated in Kathmandu after her husband left her and disappeared.
She had some friends working in the cabin restaurants and they offered to find her a job as a waitress but did not tell her what the job really entailed; she only found out when she was sexually abused and raped in her first week.
Cabin bars, established during the mid-1990s in the capital as part of the entertainment sector, have since become venues for forced prostitution, according to local NGOs.
Each bar has separate and private cabins where the waitress has to "entertain" the clients to encourage them to spend lavishly on alcohol and food.
The waitresses, aged between 15 and 25, are mostly migrant workers from the villages in nearby poor districts such as Lalitpur, Dhading, Nuwakot, Sindupalchowk, Kavre and Dolakha.
Most of them are barely literate, divorced, internally displaced persons and/or victims of domestic violence, according to a local NGO, Saathi, which runs a project creating a safe environment for the cabin-bar waitresses.
"They should shut down all these bars or all the girls will keep on getting sexually exploited openly and without any control," said Biswakarma.
Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
|Sexual exploitation is alarmingly high among waitresses at cabin bars in Nepal|
She is one of thousands of waitresses in the capital who suffer severe forms of sexual exploitation, including molestation, rape and violence, at the hands of both clients and bar owners.
According to the Nepal Restaurant Entrepreneurs Association, there are more than 20,000 waitresses working in 800 cabin restaurants and bars in Kathmandu.
"Their stories have always remained under-reported in the media and their situation remains grossly neglected by the government," said Uma Lama, an activist from Saathi.
One of the reasons why the waitresses do not get enough police and legal protection is because they are often portrayed as commercial sex workers in the local tabloids, she explained.
Lama, who has worked on protecting the cabin waitresses for eight years, says she has met scores of women like Biswakarma who have been raped or sexually abused.
Most continue with their jobs because they have no alternative.
"A lot of my friends became sex workers after they were raped, abused and forced to have sex with clients because they felt there was nobody to protect them and it was better to agree and make a better income," said Sabita Chettri, a former cabin waitress.
Chettri was rescued by Saathi and provided with temporary shelter and training as a masseuse; she now works at Himalayan Healers [see: http://www.himalayanhealers.org/], an eminent spa centre, which is also helping to provide jobs to sexually exploited waitresses.
Saathi has been helping 200 waitresses through its Gainful Employment Programme, which started in 2007, and trains them in security work, clinical care assistance, care-giving, massage, painting, driving, tailoring and as beauticians. Private companies have also joined up with Saathi to provide them with jobs after their training.
Recently, the NGO helped to rescue 55 waitresses, 32 of whom were younger than 16.
"The crimes against these women are so horrendous inside the cabins that we are often in tears when these victims tell us their stories," said Sulaksana Rana, an activist from Saathi, who also works as a counsellor.
"Most are extremely vulnerable as they lack protection and are very poor and have to survive on the sympathy of the clients, who are ruthless and dangerous," Rana explained.