NEPAL: Driving with Dignity
In Nepal, female taxi drivers are getting behind the wheel of own lives—and shaking up gender stereotypes in the process.
When Sita Thapa first moved to Kathmandu 12 years ago, she went from job to job, filtering sand, working at a noodles factory, and later at a plastic factory. After years of barely struggling to get by, she finally found her path to her own business and a sustainable living in an unlikely field: taxi driving.
The tempo, a three-wheeled, battery-powered taxi is a common sight in the streets of Kathmandu, but people are only now getting used to the sight of women like Sita in the driver’s seat. The number of women drivers in Nepal has climbed over the last few years, and some women have even been driving for international organizations like the UN and foreign embassies. A few have upgraded from tempos to micro-buses, which are larger and more challenging to drive. This sudden surge of women drivers is breaking gender barriers and proving that there is nothing stopping women from working in fields traditionally dominated by men.
Sita established herself as one of the first five women tempo drivers of Nepal. Now, at 34 years old, she has not only created financial success for herself, but has recently established a finance company to help other women save money and obtain loans to start their taxi businesses. But when Sita started, there were no job training programs, finance options, or support for women entering this field.
On her way to and from work, Sita used to watch women driving through the streets of Kathmandu, and she dreamed of owning her own car. As someone who had never learned how to read and didn’t speak English, she feared she wouldn’t be able to learn to drive. But she mustered the courage to approach a woman getting out of her car one day to ask her how she learned to drive. The response was discouraging. Only those who could afford a vehicle could drive one, the woman said. This pinched Sita’s heart, but she vowed to one day learn to drive, despite the cost.
When she heard a news item about the first female tempo driver, Sita began searching for a way to meet her. While she never ended up finding this driver, she did meet a boy who drove a tempo who agreed to teach her for 5000 rupees, or 72 dollars—the equivalent of two months’ salary.
After spending her hard-earned money on lessons, Sita still didn’t have her own tempo to drive—or a license.
A man named Kumar sir arranged her papers and hired her to drive his tempo. Sita still remembers how exciting it was when she began driving on the roads of Kathmandu, and how nervous she was to drive in traffic. When she first started, she would leave her young children at a neighbor’s home and drive from 6:00 in the morning to 7:00 in the evening for a salary of 4000 rupees, or about 90 dollars.
After driving Kumar sirs’ tempo for several years, she took out a loan and bought her own tempo in 2005. While she has considered other career options, she always comes back to driving. “My work is my God, and it's not wrong to worship God,” says Sita. Today she owns two tempos; one she drives herself, and one she hires out to another woman. Her standard of living has improved. She has made enough money to move her children from public school to English boarding school, and they are all doing well in their studies. She can afford to have meat every day and provide balanced nutrition to her children. She can manage the household on her own while her husband is away serving in Nepal’s army. And she has joined the 5% of women in Nepal who earn more than their husbands. “I can proudly say that I am the man of the house!” she exclaims. . . .