From the pan, into the fireFor the teens employed in the Capital’s ‘entertainment’ industry, getting in is easy, but getting out next to impossible
Two years ago, Arati left her home with dreams of making it big in the Capital as a professional dancer or a model. The then 15-year old had finally mustered the courage to leave her remote village and strike it out on her own when her father obstructed a photo shoot she had secretly arranged for herself. But little did she know then that independence would come at a steep price. “Agriculture is the only work available at home. It is tedious and non-rewarding and I was determined not to spend the rest of my life like my parents had done,” recalled Arati Karki, formerly of Ramechhap.
From a young age, Arati loved to dance and from the numerous accolades she received every time she performed at social functions in the village and at school she knew she had a flair for the art form. Upon arriving in Kathmandu and rooming with her aunt, she enrolled into a dance school and began work at the same ‘dance’ restaurant her guardian was employed in, where she danced on stage and sometimes prepared drinks for the patrons.
Eventually, she would move to a bigger restaurant where she doubled her wages (to a mere Rs 25,000 a year) and began waiting on tables as well. Still resolute on pursuing a career in modelling, Karki obtained a salary in advance from the owner to pay for the photo shoot she had yearned for so long. From there on, things quickly went south. “From that day onwards I was asked to cater to the guests. Some were happy just to drink but others wanted to ‘sleep’ with me. When I told my employer, he said it was part of my job,” said Karki.
At dance bars, drinking with customers not only means more business for the establishment but also more earning in tips for waiters like Aarati, and before long she had herself turned into an alcoholic. Her drinking problem has meant that she has switched three jobs in the past two years—all with little pay and a lot of exploitation.
Karki is one of many young girls who are lured by a life in the cities and are pawned off by relatives into shady establishments, fully aware that the work place is not suitable for the young.
“Unless someone spends time and money to help her overcome her alcoholism and provide her with better life skill trainings, this 17-year old will not be able to emerge unscathed from the mess her life has become,” says Menuka Thapa, president of Rakshya Nepal, an organisation that helps women working in the ‘entertainment’ sector.
According to Thapa, the number of women joining the dubiously titled ‘entertainment’ sector has gone up significantly since last year’s earthquakes. “We see a lot of new faces. With the earthquakes destroying their houses and the government not being able to assist them with the rebuilding, these young girls are leaving their villages to find means of employment,” added Thapa.
With little education and no other life skills, these girls, more often than not, end up working in restaurants, dance bar and massage parlours that pepper the Capital. Seduced by the glamour of dancing and buoyed by the attention they attract from customers, the women become easy hires for owners of the establishments who are fully aware that they have little options of hopping to another profession easily. What is more, due to the fear of societal stigma, most girls do not see quitting and returning home as an option. The ‘entertainment’ industry might be easy to get into, but is near impossible to escape from.
Sanam Tamang, who grew up in Dhading, was brought to Kathmandu by a family friend with the consent of his parents. The Tamang family had hoped their 14-year-old son, the eldest among three children, would be able to pitch in some money to rebuild their house lost to the quakes. In the 14 months that Tamang has been in Kathmandu, he has been employed at a tea and snack shop—an unsuspecting khaja ghar.
“Initially I was told to just serve the food but now I cater to some other needs of the guests as well,” says the teen. Tamang works out of a shop in Gongabu. From the outside the eatery looks like any other dingy tea shops you’d find in the Valley, but some regular patrons know very well that there are rooms available for hire upstairs. It is here young children like Sanam are exploited by those looking for a cheap sex. He is regularly asked to drink with the customers as well.
“I like my work. The work is easy and they pay me regularly,” said Sanam, when an organisation working for commercially exploited children tried to rehabilitate him.
“We found that the shop ran a brothel, employing children as young as nine years old. There are many of these shops who run eateries just as a front. Even people who came to this particular store regularly had no idea of its dual face,” said Neha Sharma (Rupa), president of Media Mobilisation for Sustainable Development (MMSD) Nepal.
The problem, according to Sharma, is that these children do not realise that they are being exploited and they are obliviously happy with their lives. Tasting independence for the first time, they are happily content to booze, have sex and make a little money on the side.
“Too young to understand about safe sex, their future and thatthey are being exploited, the teens are obstinately stubborn towards those who want to help them,” says Sharma, speaking about Tamang’s case, “Even when some of them are rescued and housed in rehabilitation centres, the rate of drop-outs is astounding.”
“They think they are free and this freedom is not provided in rehabilitation centres where they have to go back to a disciplined life. They are always looking for ways to run back to the same old life. Long-term counselling, I think, is the only viable solution,” says Sharma, “And until the quality of counselling available can be drastically improved, the ‘entertainment’ sector will continue to chew up young, vulnerable teens and spit them back out with STDs, debilitating drug and alcohol habits, and mental traumas that will last for years and years to come.”
*Names have been changed