Uma Khadka, a 21-year-old bar dancer, was set ablaze by her husband (a driver with the Nepal Electricity Authority) in January last year. Her neighbours rescued and admitted her to the hospital.
Uma’s statement to the doctor: Petrol had spilled on the floor and when I was trying to light a match I caught fire.
Doctor’s comments: Her bruises hint at a different story. It is quite impossible for her to survive. She is in a critical state.
Her husband’s statement: You cannot predict the state of mind of bar dancers. She must have been upset and poured kerosene and set herself on fire.
Uma’s statement to Raksha Nepal: After a lengthy argument, he spilled petrol all over me and set me on fire. He would have killed me if I had spoken the truth in front of the doctor. Please save me.
Uma was rescued by Raksha Nepal. Her body and hands are badly scarred, and even a year later she is still struggling to recover. With the hope of receiving justice she has filed a case against her husband, the second hearing of which was due last month. Uma is also taking driving lessons. Menuka Thapa, president of Raksha Nepal, believes it to be her duty to help such women out of their misery, “I know what pain is. I know what it feels like to be alone. My aim, through Raksha Nepal, is to help women like Uma and give them the confidence of starting life all over again.”
An organisation established in 2004, Raksha Nepal is actively working for the empowerment of sexually abused women and for the rehabilitation of those women who have been forced into prostitution and sex trade in the backdrop of dance restaurants and massage parlours. Vocational trainings and counselling sessions are provided to help them earn an alternative living.
“Valiant, dynamic and a possible youth icon,” was how a friend of mine had described Menuka. Just a brief on Menuka’s life—its challenges and her perseverance—was enough reason to urge me to meet her. Her dedication towards her work was vividly expressed when she instantly agreed for an interview. “I strongly believe in the role of the media in supporting the voice of these women. It is through our joint effort that they can get due justice,” she said. Just an hour’s talk with her and I realised the true meaning of perseverance. At 28, she has struggled, faltered a number of times, but has never forgotten to get up and move on. She had a difficult childhood but didn’t mourn over it, instead took every obstacle as a door to a brighter future.
Blaming her birth as a curse on the family, her mother and her eight siblings, were forced to leave the house when Menuka was just a child. “I was the ninth child. In the hope of giving birth to a son, my mother used to get pregnant every year. My father died in an accident when my mother was two months pregnant with me. After my birth, everyone in the house blamed me for his death and hated me for it. Malai bau tokwa ko aarope lagayo,” says Menuka. After moving out, her mother and sisters worked day and night to make ends meet. “In order to make up for all the disparagement I received as a child, my mother tried hard to give me access to every possible facility in the village,” she says.
With great difficulty Menuka was admitted into a local school; however, her mother had no money to pay for the uniform and stationery. Menuka often went to school hungry in order to save for her books. She borrowed books, stayed up late at night to complete lessons in advance. “I was the only one in my family going to school. It was my mother’s dream and I had to live up to it,” she says. Although Menuka was a brilliant student and equally good at co-curricular activities, she couldn’t continue her studies after the 10th standard due to lack of resources. After lingering around for two years in the village, she decided to take financial help from her uncles in Kathmandu. “Unfortunately, none of my relatives supported me. They blamed me for killing my father. They didn’t even allow me to enter their house. I knocked the doors of social organisations but to my dismay, none of them agreed to help me saying that my problems didn’t fall under their organisation’s mandate—I was neither an orphan nor a victim of sexual abuse or trafficking.”
Having no option left, Menuka started living on the pavement in front of the Standard Chartered Bank in New Baneswore until she was spotted by Mohan Bahadur Thapa, chief engineer of Buddha Air. “He and his wife became my guardian angels. They took me home
and agreed to sponsor my education,” she smiles.
Interested in music since childhood, Menuka opted for music as a subject in college. She had a good voice, so she decided to work part time as a singer in a Dohori restaurant, but her decision was not accepted well by the society. Her sisters were against it, her relatives spat at her when she walked past them, the people in the neighbourhood looked at her with suspicious eyes. “I am extremely happy that I went against everyone and took that decision because it was after working there that I understood the real situation of women working in such professions,” she says.
“The fact that sex was also on the menu was a different story altogether; not getting the full amount they deserved was a bigger issue. It is an individual choice whether or not you want to cater to the customer’s sexual needs, nobody can force you into it. And even if you are forced into it by your employer, you deserve a fair amount for your service,” says Menuka, adding. “The workers went for days without getting paid but could not raise their voice against the restaurant owner for fear of losing their job. Personally witnessing the mistreatment and abuse they had to go through, I was motivated to fight against it.” Menuka started off by winning the confidence of all female workers in the restaurant and the surrounding dance bars, got them together and motivated them to express solidarity in solving the issue. She invited them over to her house every Saturday and taught them how to read and write. “With constant counselling and motivation, they became confident enough to object to negative advances from customers. They even got together and confronted the owner to pay them their dues. Slowly, all of them began getting their salaries on time,” says Menuka.
Hearing about her initiative, women from different dance bars and cabin restaurants contacted her for assistance and offered their support for the cause. However, along with their support came threats from the bar owners. “I started receiving threatening phone calls. They said I was too young to invite such trouble. They even threatened to rape me on the road if I didn’t stop supporting these women. But I was not scared. I decided to never look back and keep fighting fearlessly.”
Menuka soon felt the need for an organisation that could help such women come together and discuss their problems, and this gave birth to Raksha Nepal in 2004. With the support of a few friends, she developed the organisation’s mission to empower the women working in dance bars, cabin restaurants and dohori restaurants. She imparted knowledge and skill resources so that they would earn a decent living in an environment where they had control over their lives; Menuka strove to create an environment where no woman would be forced into prostitution. After various research campaigns, Menuka realised that among the thousands of women in this profession, a large number were victims of abuse and wished to rehabilitate. She thus decided to start vocational training programmes for these women.
When I ask whether her organisation’s rehabilitation programme was detrimental to women exercising their freedom to choose the profession of their choice, she replies: “I strongly believe that every woman has the right to choose her own profession, and that no job is inferior. A writer sells his pen for money, an actor sells his acting skills and a doctor sells his knowledge. I sold my voice to make a living, so what’s the harm if a woman sells her body in order to feed her children? But I feel it is my duty to help women who have been tricked or forced into such professions; I want to help women who were sexually abused. I am not against an 18-year-old dancing naked on the stage if she’s doing it out of her own free will. I am against those who have forcibly intoxicated her into performing such acts.”
Of late, Raksha Nepal has been concentrating its services on women working in massage parlours. “The situation there is even worse. They are unaware of the acts they need to perform besides the massage service when they enter the profession. Salaries are not fixed. They get their money (25 percent) on the basis of the number of clients they satisfy due to which they have no alternative than to obey the orders of the employer,” she reveals. Menuka and her staff are trying hard to develop measures to regulate such acts and create awareness among those involved in massage services.
What the figures say…
A survey conducted by Raksha Nepal among 200 women working in dance bars, cabin restaurants and massage parlours produced the following results;
-Vaishali Pradhan Rai