Srijana Pun: fighting for the right to earn a dignified living

21 May 2018 Sahina Shrestha

In the final entry of our Nepal gender, peace and security interview series, Sahina Shrestha of the Nepali Times writes about the discrimination and marginalisation faced by women who work in the informal entertainment sector in Nepal.

In 2001, when Srijana Pun came to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, to escape the war in her hometown, little did she think she’d be in for a long up-hill battle for the rights of women working in the informal entertainment sector.

It didn’t take long for her to realise that society saw her work at a restaurant   not as a profession, but as something of low moral standard and to be judged.

After working in the sector for nearly six years, Pun established Women for Women in Nepal (WOFOWON) in 2008, the first organisation of its kind that worked to ensure the rights of women working in beer bars, dance restaurants and Dohori restaurants – all part of the informal entertainment sector in Nepal.  Today there are 600 women within its network.

According to government data, there are an estimated 50,000 girls and women employed in the informal entertainment sector. Because it is unregulated, activists say the number can be much higher in reality. Although the average age of girls is between 14 and 25, there is no clear data as to how many minors work in the industry.

More often than not, there are no contractual agreements between employers and employees. Those with small children are forced to leave them at home. The working conditions are poor and there are no fixed working hours. Though the new Labour Act of 2017 set the minimum wage at 9,700 Nepalese rupees, women in the informal entertainment industry are often paid much less.

They also don’t get paid sick leave nor do they receive any support from employers to address difficult circumstances. If the customers leave without paying, the amount is deducted from the employee’s salary.

Many are still forced to hide their professions from their families, and finding rented rooms can be difficult because of the stigma of their work. This stigmatisation often results in social exclusion and limited career opportunities for women working in the industry. Once they reach the age of retirement or when they want to change career, they find themselves unable to do so as many of the prospective employers refuse to hire them because of their previous line of work.

In 2008, the Supreme Court issued a directive to restaurant owners and the government to ensure that the rights of women working in this sector are protected. Based on this directive, the District Administration Office in Kathmandu prepared guidelines to reduce sexual harassment of those working in the sector. However, activists like Pun believe that the Labour Act – which guarantees a minimum wage working contracts and defined working hours - is the best way to address vulnerabilities and exploitation.

Women in this sector repeatedly face physical, psychological and sexual violence, as well as financial exploitation from employers, customers and law enforcement agencies. But most of the cases go unreported due to a lack of access to justice, and out of fear of being stigmatised.

After a certain age (mostly after their mid-30s), women often find it difficult to find employment and long term support from employers and the government. There are also security concerns for those who work late hours.  Because their jobs aren’t treated the same as in other professions, they often get arrested by the police on grounds of public offence and are treated as criminals.

There have been some positive changes though, says Pun. Women in the sector are more aware of their rights. There are activists and organisations that are working to ensure fair treatment and the police force have become more sensitive to the issue. But there is still a long way to go before they will be treated with respect or dignity.

Change has to start from society, with the law and policies addressing the needs and rights of people working in the sector. There must be greater dignity afforded to all kinds of labour, where women are treated with respect. The Labour Act of 2017 needs to be implemented fully and the Social Security Act of 2017 should be amended to address the issues of people working in this and similar professions. There also have to be regulations and monitoring of the workplace, and proper records need to be kept of women involved in the sector.

But more importantly, Srijana Pun and her contemporaries working in the informal entertainment sector expect government agencies to commit more resources to protecting the rights of women to earn a livelihood without fear, intimidation or harassment – just as in any other sector.