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NEPAL: Cabin restaurants promote sexual exploitation [Report]

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 , 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. [Source: IRIN]

Posted on 2005-02-09



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