KATHMANDU, Nepal – Menuka Thapa lost her father in an accident while she was still in her mother’s womb. She was the youngest of nine siblings – all girls. Her father’s family had wanted a boy, and soon after her birth, her mother and sisters were thrown out of the house. They saw her as a bad omen and blamed her for the untimely death of her father.
Despite very limited resources, Thapa’s mother was determined to give her an education. But when Thapa was in high school, her mother died, and in 1999, at the age of 16, she had to give up her studies and move to Kathmandu to make a living.
Thapa knocked on the doors of charities for help, but they couldn’t do much, as her problems didn’t fall under their mandate – she wasn’t a victim of sexual abuse or trafficking. She took a part-time job as a singer in a restaurant. It was while working there that she witnessed firsthand the exploitation of girls and women working in dance bars and restaurants.
“They were forced to have sex with the customers by the owners of the restaurants,” she said. “The girls went for days without getting paid, but could not raise their voice against their employers for fear of losing their job.”
Horrified by what she saw, Thapa rounded up a group of women and girls who worked there and encouraged them to speak up for their rights. She says this helped them feel more confident in firmly saying “no” to advances from the customers and owners and demanding their full wages. Hearing about her initiative, girls from different dance bars, restaurants and massage parlors in Kathmandu started contacting her.
Realizing that she had hit a nerve, Thapa started the NGO Raksha Nepal (“Protect Nepal”) in 2004, when she was out of the restaurant industry, with the goal of empowering women working in informal entertainment. Over the past 13 years, she says her charity has helped 1,623 women and girls escape from sexual exploitation in brothels, massage parlors, so-called duet restaurants (which feature live music shows) and cabin restaurants (where customers are served by waitresses in tiny individual rooms).
Women & Girls met with Thapa in Khatmandu to learn more about her work.
Women & Girls: What measures are you taking to prevent young girls from getting into the sex industry?
Menuka Thapa: After the 2015 earthquake, there has been a steady rise in the number of minor girls coming to Kathmandu for work. These girls are highly vulnerable, and an increasing number of them are being caught up in drugs and sex work. They become mothers and even contract HIV.
To combat the situation, we are now running workshops in 12 districts in Nepal. We invite parents and tell them that they should be aware of what their daughters are doing in the city, and the risks they might be exposed to. We seek their support to help stop the migration of girls to the cities by creating work opportunities in the villages, especially in agriculture or animal husbandry.
We have formed groups of outreach workers and employ rehabilitated girls to convince girls in the villages not to be lured by agents and middle men who promise jobs and good life in the city. We use radio, brochures and individual counseling to reach out.
Women & Girls: Can you tell us about how your organization is helping women already working in the informal entertainment industry?
Thapa: We rescue minor girls, under the age of 18, from brothels and massage parlors and bring them to our shelter, where they are first given psychosocial counseling as well as healing through yoga and meditation. They are then offered legal support and skill development courses in organic farming, driving, massage therapy and housekeeping. We ensure that their children go to a proper school.
The skills development program is also open to street and brothel-based sex workers who might want to learn new skills in order to change their profession. Money is the biggest source of empowerment for women, so from the very beginning, I taught women to save money. In 2008, we set up a credit and saving co-operative with the savings of sex workers. Many of the former sex workers have started their own businesses with the support of this scheme.
In 2015, we formed a union of women working in the informal entertainment industry. Through the union, we are trying to protect the rights of women engaged in sex work and those employed in massage parlors, duet restaurants, dance bars and cabin restaurants.
Women & Girls: What are the key challenges?
Thapa: Our radio program, Voice of Raksha, which is aired twice a week, has been a very effective medium to reach out to girls in remote areas. After every program, we get calls from girls across the country who are in dangerous situations, but we don’t always have the resources to help them. This is where we feel bad, especially after raising their hopes. We need more resources, funds and support from the government to help women trapped in sex work.
At the policy level, the focus of the government is to combat human trafficking, but there is no clear strategy. Traffickers are smart people. They visit cabin restaurants, dance bars, massage parlors. In that closed space, which is at times intimate, they can lure a girl by paying extra money, by promising to marry her or by promising her a job in the Middle East. Since she is young, she can be influenced. The girls know that whatever they are doing is illegal and that they will not be accepted by their community if they discover their work. So, it’s very easy to fall into this trap.
The problem is that the authorities don’t take these issues seriously. We can give a girl shelter, provide her with food – but we cannot give her justice. Perpetrators and sex offenders roam about freely, and there is hardly an effort to bring them to justice.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.