Radha fled from her village in Rautahat, 200 km south of Kathmandu, to escape forced military recruitment by Maoist rebels. Carrying her small suitcase and less than US $20, she arrived in the capital, Kathmandu, hoping for security and even perhaps a decent job.
After a desperate hunt for work, she found a job at a ‘cabin’ restaurant. Little did she know that when she was offered the job as a waitress, her work would consist of entertaining male clients in semi-private wooden cubicles.
As she had already received an advance on her salary, Radha had no choice but to follow her manager’s directives to please her customers and make them order as much food and drink as possible by keeping them content.
“I was trapped. I had to endure everything and slowly I got used to the sexual abuse,” said 17-year old Radha, who is just one of thousands of Nepali girls who have migrated to the cities. They are fleeing from villages caught up in the nine year conflict between Maoist insurgents fighting for a communist state and government security forces.
But the capital has little to offer illiterate girls and women like Radha. Most of them end up working as cheap labourers in carpet factories, brick kilns, stone quarries and small motels, where they are paid a pittance and often work under extremely exploitative conditions. According to International Labor Organization (ILO), many of them also suffer sexual abuse while at work.
Such abuse is effectively institutionalised in cabin restaurants. An investigation conducted by Saathi, a local NGO working to reduce violence against women, revealed that girls ranging between 14 and 18 years old are particularly at risk. “They endure sexual abuse at the hands of the clients. They don’t have anywhere else to go and cannot report abuse to the police as they are already viewed as sex workers by society,” explained Pramoda Shah, president of Saathi.
Today there are more than 100 cabin restaurants around the city where more than 50,000 women are estimated to be working as waitresses. A large number of girls and women are classed as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) because of the conflict with the Maoists.
The fighting has shattered Nepal’s fragile economy, forcing millions of men to seek work in neighbouring India. “With so many men migrating to India for survival, the female members are often pushed into dangerous situations, even to the extent of getting sexually abused, to earn for their families,” explained Biswo Khadka from Maiti Nepal, a local NGO working to end human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
He says the answer to the problem may not be as simple as just closing down the restaurants. “This will only lead to a humanitarian crisis for the girls as they will end up in the street after they are unable to pay the rent and buy food. Most of them have young children to feed,” explained Sita Ghimire, a local staff member of Save the Children (Norway).
The issue of the exploitation of waitresses who from poor families living in poverty-stricken villages has been investigated by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) which conducted a study on the issue with financial aid from ILO.
The NHRC has already taken the problem up with law enforcement authorities. Although the police have taken action by raiding some cabin restaurants this has only resulted in further victimisation of the waitresses, say activists.
“We are the ones who get arrested and have to bear the verbal abuse of the police. They detain us and we have to pay a fine for our release,” Reema Thapa, a 20-year- old waitress told IRIN. She has already been arrested twice for just sitting with a client in the cubicle of such a restaurant.
Reema fled from her village in Ramechap, 150 km east of Kathmandu, after her husband was killed by the rebels. With no relatives or friends in the capital, she was forced to work in a cabin restaurant to support her five-year-old son and herself. “The worst part is when my son sees the clients grabbing me. He always asks me why they are doing that?” explained Reema, with tears streaming down her face.
Reema has been desperately looking for another job, but since she is not educated, all she can find is work at a carpet factory where the employment is equally exploitative. “Now I am quite used to the harassment, but how can you convince these clients that we are not whores?”
“The situation for the waitresses in the cabin restaurants is highly vulnerable. The employers who promote such sexual exploitation at the hands of the clients never get arrested,” said Uma Lama, a social worker trying to educate the waitresses about the very real risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
But the girls and women forced to work in the clubs have now got together to form a self-help group. With funding support from Save the Children (Norway), the organisation has already formed a network of more than 50 waitresses in Kathmandu.
“We are preparing ourselves to confront our employers so that they will not exploit us any more,” said Babita Gurung, a group member. The network regularly invites lawyers, police officers, gender activists and social workers to give them information about the constitution and existing laws and how to take legal action against offenders.
“Only the worst sort of people come to such restaurants,” said Rita Lama, a waitress who got severely beaten up in January when she refused to let a client touch her. Her employer just watched quietly as the enraged man she was with, punched her in the face and broke beer glasses