Sharmila Chhetri was forced to chose between survival and self-esteem. After the Maoists killed her husband two years ago, Sharmila fled from Dhading with her son and her meagre savings to Kathmandu, where she had no friends or relatives. The only way to survive was to find work in a place that did not ask for any documents or identification. She has supported herself and her son, now aged five, by working as a waitress in a cabin restaurant in Gaushala, but she has to endure constant harassment.
"The saddest part is when my son sees the clients grabbing me. He always asks what they are doing," says Sharmila, who is desperate to find another job but knows it will be impossible to quit now. "I am used to the harassment. They treat us like whores, but how can you change them?"
Cabin restaurants have a reputation for being prostitution fronts, and some women's rights groups have begun campaigning against the harassment and exploitation of women. Save the Children (UK) and Saathi, a womens' rights group, conducted the first-ever investigation inside cabin restaurants four years ago, which revealed that female migrants from nearby districts as young as 14 had to serve the clients as 'pleasure waitresses'. They had to sit with the clients in the dingy partitioned rooms of the restaurants and do "almost everything" to make the clients pay huge bills. If they failed to do so, they faced the wrath of their employers.
Following the investigation, Saathi and Save the Children began efforts to create a safe working environment inside restaurants. With help of Usha Lama, a womens' rights activist, they invited waitresses for a meeting. The girls were sceptical at first, concerned that the activists were just using them. But when the girls met and shared their stories, they decided to form their own group to address the rights of the rest of the waitresses.
Most girls have been in police custody many times, arrested for sex work although they claim to have only been sitting close to clients. "There is no sex work inside the restaurants. There is no proof of our wrongdoing," explains Rita Subba, who works in a cabin restaurant in Baneswor. While the raids have been a nuisance, the police have helped to some extent by ordering owners to remove curtains and reduce the height of the partition walls inside the restaurants, making the 'cabins' less private.
"But the clients don't care. Only the worst sort of men come here," says Gita Thapa in Naya Baneswor. A group of young men beat her severely when she refused to let them touch her. Her employer just watched as they slapped and punched her, then broke some beer bottles and left without paying. "Employers try to protect the girls, but we can't fight the clients," says restaurant owner Ramesh Giri.
"My employer is nice and the clients treat me well. I think it is all up to employer," says Sarita Thapa, who comes from a middle class family in Narayanghat. She left home after finishing school, and has been working for a year at a cabin restaurant in Maitighar.
Saathi's Pramoda Shah says there is false notion that all waitresses are sex workers, which is why the clients go to the cabin restaurants. "We have to change such social perception," she told us. The waitresses have rented an office in Patan and meet every week to share problems. They invite lawyers, human rights workers, police officers and counsellors to advise them on laws, rights, socialisation and legal aid. The Nepal Trade Union is now trying to help them lobby for safe and fair working conditions.
"The solution is not to raid restaurants or intimidate the owners, but to seek their cooperation. Closing down the restaurants only puts the girls into difficulty. The waitresses still need their jobs," explains Shah. The group's chairperson, who calls herself Sobha Lama to protect herself from stigma and harassment from neighbours and relatives, says: "We are not ashamed of our work. We work hard to make a living just as any other respectable Nepali citizen." There are already signs that working conditions may improve, and membership has risen to 50 girls.
Usha Lama says: "It was a big challenge to win the girls' trust. I really appreciate their patience. They understand
that things won't change overnight, but constantly hope for the best."
(Some names have been changed)