When Mumbai, India's film and business capital, shut down all its 'dance bars', there was much debate on the merits and demerits of the decision. In Nepal, another Asian location infamous for its dance bars, women's rights activists are fighting for the rights of the dancers.
"Eventually, we would like that (the shutting down of these bars) to happen here (in Kathmandu) too, but first we need a massive degree of awareness, networking and coordination," says Arpana Shrestha, a Project Officer with Maiti Nepal, a prominent NGO. Maiti works to spread awareness among 'bar girls' - women employed in the small and medium-sized bars and restaurants in Nepal, many of which have the unsavory reputation of having sex on the menu as well.
Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of small and medium restaurants in Kathmandu: the actual restaurants, cabin restaurants and dance bars.
The cabin restaurants are the most dangerous for women employees, says Shrestha. When a customer walks into a dimly-lit hall partitioned into tiny cubicles and calls for a waitress, the worst form of sexual exploitation is on the cards. The cabin restaurants are often raided by police, who take away customers and waitresses in various degrees of undress.
"It is the cabin restaurants that teenagers wanting their first sexual experiences turn to," says Shrestha. "It is also the place where inexperienced teens and minor girls go looking for jobs."
Besides poverty and unemployment, since 1996, Nepal has been racked by an armed conflict between Maoist insurgents and the government. Over 12,000 people have died, and tens of thousands have been displaced, heading towards Kathmandu. "The girls coming from the rural districts are not educated and have no job skills," says Shrestha. "The cabin restaurant is the only place that will employ them. And so they go there."
After an inexperienced girl has done a stint in a cabin restaurant and become wise to the ways of the world, she moves on to the dance bars. From a waitress, she graduates to a dancer, who, in between dance numbers, has to come and sit at the client's table for a consideration. There could be proposals for more. While some bars let her do what she wants, some pressure her to oblige.
Sonam Rai came to Kathmandu nearly 10 years ago from the Terai plains in the south. Nineteen at that time, she was an orphan living with her uncle. "He made my life miserable," she says with an angry toss of her head. "I worked in his field all day long and at night, I had to sleep in the cowshed." A friend of hers got her a couple of jobs as a domestic help. But Rai quit because of sexual harassment by her employers and began working as a waitress in a dance bar. But here, she was at the beck and call of the dancers who insulted her. "So I decided to become a dancer. It's true I have to wear skimpy clothes, but at least I am not bossed around anymore."
Dipa Tamang, 26, is a dancer with the Galaxy Dance and Shower Bar in the busy Sundhara area of Kathmandu, a downmarket commercial road near the bus stations. Although an accomplished dancer, Tamang will not find work with a dance troupe because her face was badly scarred in an accident. With a four-year-old child to care for, deserted by her husband, and educated only up to Class 7, the dim light of the dance bar and the garish makeup she uses to hide her scars are her only haven.
According to Yogendra Chaulagain, secretary of Nepal Restaurant Entrepreneurs' Association (NREA), there are around 30,000 women working in the capital's restaurants. Most of them are from the rural areas and have no education or skills. Domestic violence, desertion by husband, feckless boyfriends who leave them pregnant, the insurgency and grinding poverty force them into economic and sexual exploitation.
Chaulagain says NREA did a rough survey about three months ago and estimates that more than 75 per cent of the women working in cabin restaurants in the valley are between 18-25. Shrestha, however, has entirely different figures. She estimates that over 50 per cent of these women are actually minors - some as young as 10. What makes the situation so nightmarish - and the figures impossible to corroborate - is that there is no certified data. Many of the fly-by-night restaurants are not even registered.
"In fact, according to the law, cabin and dance restaurants are not allowed. But with small restaurants mushrooming, the competition is so cut-throat that the owners have to devise something extra to keep the clients coming. So they think of dance bars and shower bars. They even advertise that on signboards. But the government has not taken any serious note of this," says Shrestha.
A shower bar includes a round bathtub-like structure, where dancers flit in and out while the showers spray water on scantily clad bodies. "We do have hot water in winter," says Tamang. "But at times we catch a cold. We have to learn to step in and step out immediately."
The employment conditions vary from bar to bar. The salaries range from NRs2,000 to 6,000 per month (1US$-70.9 Nepali Rupees), but the real money is in the tips a girl can get. There is no weekly off or annual leave. "We stay open only from 6 pm to 10 pm," says the management of X Bar, one of the upmarket dance bars in the city, thronged by young men on bikes. "It's a part-time job, and so, there is no weekly off. But if a dancer falls ill, we pay for the treatment."
A June 2005 survey on the migration of women in Nepal carried out by Save the Children, USA found a high level of insecurity among the dancers. The report - titled 'The Movement of Women' - says, "A Gurung woman from Ramechhap (a district east of Kathmandu)...worried that as she was getting older, she might get fired, since the bar preferred young dancers...Work at a dance bar is never permanent employment and a number of women said contracts and job appointment letters would help them, presumably through legitimacy."
Shyam Sundar Shrestha, joint secretary at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, admits dance and cabin restaurants are a serious concern. "The government is taking it seriously," he says. "We have formed a task force comprising members from the Chief District Officer's office and NGOs to do a survey and come up with recommendations. Unfortunately, we don't have the means right now to rehabilitate the dance bar girls but we are working with NGOs like Maiti, which have rehabilitation centres."
In 2003, a 15-member team coordinated by Maiti Nepal came up with several recommendations. All small and medium restaurants must register with the government, cabins must be abolished and girls shouldn't be forced to drink with the customers.
Although the government has not been able to implement any of these recommendations, Arpana Shrestha is still hopeful. "We are working on a code of conduct for such restaurant owners. Once it is ready, we will go to the government again," she says. "At present, we are visiting the restaurants, identifying a leader among the girls and giving her an orientation about trafficking. So far, we have covered 450 dance cabins."
Shutting down the restaurants is not the answer, she says. "We have to provide these bainis (sisters) with life skills so that they have an option. Otherwise, we will probably push them into a worse fate."