Uma Khadka was 21 years old when she fled the conflict in her home village in Dolakha and came to Kathmandu. Unable to find any work, she landed up in one of Kathmandu’s seedy ‘dance bars’. She met a man there whom she married, but he soon started abusing her. One night, he poured kerosene on her and set her ablaze.Uma was rescued by Rakshya Nepal, a charity dedicated to rehabilitating abused young women. Her body, hands and face are badly scarred but she is enrolled in driving lessons with eight other women rescued from violent husbands or abusive employers.
Sushmita Basnet lost her right arm when she was hit during crossfire in a battle at Mulkharka, Okhaldhunga five years ago. She was helicoptered out by the army and it took her one year to recuperate at Chhauni Hospital. Today, at 20, she has started rebuilding her life and, undaunted by her handicap, is taking tailoring lessons at Rakshya Nepal.
Rakshya Nepal was founded by Menuka Thapa, who herself sang at one of Kathmandu’s dohori restaurants. After personally witnessing the mistreatment and abuse of women in the restaurant, Menuka was motivated to work against it.
As a university student, Menuka also decided to research the plight of young women working in massage parlours, dance bars and restaurants for her master’s thesis. Menuka found most girls to be between the ages of 11-25, but some were as old as 45. There are now 300 massage centres in Thamel alone, and each of them employs an average of 10 girls. Most are fronts for prostitution and the police don’t try to stop them.
Menuka interviewed 200 women, who also filled out questionnaires. Her study shows that 80 percent of the women working in these parlours were directly affected by the conflict. They came to Kathmandu in search of work and fell into the capital’s netherworld of commercial sex. The dancers, the masseurs and the waitresses mostly come from Dhading, Makwanpur, Kabhre, Sindhupalchowk, Nuwakot, Ramechhap, Sindhuli and Dolakha. A majority were married but are separated.
Rakshya Nepal tries to help the women earn an alternative living by providing skills training. Besides driving and tailoring, the group also trains the women to become beauticians. Thirty former dance restaurant women have quit their jobs and are working in beauty parlours in the city. There are currently 50 women undergoing various types
of free training at Rakshya Nepal’s training centres.
After her mother died, Suntali Rai was regularly abused by her stepmother. When the Maoists tried to recruit her into their militia, Suntali fled to Kathmandu. She worked in a businessman’s house, but when he tried to molest her she fled and started to work in a massage parlour in Thamel. She ran away from there and came to Rakshya Nepal, where she is now a beautician trainee. She says: “Finally, I have the possibility of starting a new life.”
Twenty-two year old Sunita Chaudhary’s father died when her mother was pregnant. Sunita came to Kathmandu from Bara when her mother married another man. She was forced to work at a dohori restaurant after the man she married started beating her up. She is now working as a beautician trainee. “I have no relatives left, the didis at Rakshya Nepal are my family now,” she says.
Menuka Thapa knows that her work is a drop in the ocean. The plight of the women also shows just how conflict leaves long-term effects. “The government has to formulate clear policies so this blatant exploitation of women stops,” she told Nepali Times, “there is only so much people like us can do.”