Exploitation continues unabated at Kathmandu’s dance bars and dohori restaurantsAs such informal entertainment venues are not regulated by the government, there is ample room for labour exploitation and physical and sexual harassment.
Ramila migrated to Kathmandu from Rolpa in 2018 in the hopes of pursuing a singing career. She had learned about an opening in a dohori restaurant from a friend and signed up for the job.
“I am passionate about singing, so I thought if I try my luck in Kathmandu, I can fulfil my dream of becoming a singer,” said 20-year-old Ramila. “When I got a job, I felt empowered.”
When she was hired, Ramila wasn’t given an appointment letter by her employer, and she was paid a monthly salary of Rs 5,000, even though the government has set the minimum wage at Rs 13,400. The final straw for Ramila was when she was sexually assaulted by her colleague. She quit after working there for two weeks.
“The dohori could have been a good singing platform for me, but I didn’t feel safe working there,” she said.
There are thousands of women like Ramila working in Kathmandu’s entertainment sector, primarily singing and dancing in dohori restaurants and dance bars, and according to rights organisations, most of their stories resemble Ramila’s. Such informal entertainment venues are not regulated by the government, which provides ample ground for labour exploitation and physical and sexual harassment.
Like Ramila, 25-year-old Sita was excited to get a job as a bar dancer in a restaurant. As the sole provider for her family, Rita thought that her financial woes were finally over. However, problems started when her employer didn’t pay her any wages for three months.
“With the help of an NGO, I went to file a complaint at a police station where the officer asked me for evidence,” said Rita. “Since I didn’t have an appointment letter from my employer, I couldn’t do anything.”
According to the Alliance Against Trafficking In Women And Children In Nepal (AATWIN), an organisation working to combat trafficking, it is difficult to estimate the exact number of women working in this sector as not all entertainment venues are registered under the same entity.
“Some are registered at the metropolitan office while some are at the sub-metropolitan office. Some entertainment venues are even registered as cottage and small-scale industries,” said Balmaya Bishwakarma, project officer at AATWIN. Informal estimates by activists enumerate around 40,000-50,000 women working in this sector.
A vast majority of these women work without appointment letters, as they are paid below the government-mandated minimum wage with no fixed working hours.
Many employees even suffer sexual harassment at their workplaces.
Although the Kathmandu District Administration Office had, in 2008, formulated guidelines under the direction of Supreme Court for business owners in the entertainment industry to maintain a safe work environment, cases of sexual harassment from within the entertainment sector continue to be reported.
According to a report from the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre, in 2019, 55 cases of violence against women were filed with the Women Forum for Women in Nepal, another organisation advocating for the rights of women working in the entertainment sector. According to the report, 18 cases were related to physical and sexual assault, 14 to mental abuse and 6 to deprivation of legal documents.
“Many women are working in dohoris and dance bars of their own free will. But as this sector isn’t recognised as a formal work profession by the government, these women are often vulnerable to sexual and labour exploitation,” said Srijana Pun, chairperson of Women Forum for Women in Nepal.
DSP Rajendra Pokharel at Kathmandu Metropolitan Police Station, Teku acknowledges that sexual and labour exploitation is rampant within the entertainment industry. However, he says that arresting the business owners isn’t a solution.
“Many women who file complaints about labour exploitation don’t have appointment letters. In such cases, it is difficult for us to proceed with the investigation,” Pokharel said. “Working women should themselves be aware of their rights so that they can protect themselves from being exploited.”
But according to Pun, many women who choose these professions are poor and illiterate, which means that they are often unaware of their rights.
“The restaurant owners don’t ask for legal documents for employment, and for uneducated women, it seems like a great opportunity to earn money,” she said.
But because they are uneducated, they are also unaware of avenues to seek legal redress when they face harassment and exploitation at the hands of employers and customers.
“These women don’t know their rights and even if some do, they are either too scared to complain, for fear of losing their jobs, or think they won’t get justice,” said Pun, who herself worked in a cabin restaurant for six years.
The travails of these women don’t just depend on legal provisions; there is a great social stigma towards women who work in such institutions. According to Pun, the state should work towards providing identity and respect to these women so that they can fully exercise their right to choose employment without any obstacles.
Towards this end, the Ministry of Labour and Employment needs to recognise women as formal workers and monitor the entertainment sector, especially when it comes to contracts, minimum wage and working hours, according to Bimala Khadka Darlami, case manager at the National Women’s Commission.