NEPAL: Driving with Dignity
Before 2000 there were no women taxi drivers. Today there are around 150 full-time women drivers, and 350 part-time women drivers for the 700 electric tempos in Kathmandu. About 70 of these women have taken out a loan to purchase their own vehicle. Tempos are easy to operate and are safe, and one can earn good money from driving them, which may be why women are attracted to this industry.
After driving her tempo for one and a half years, Binita Shrestha, who is 29 years old, now drives for the Swiss ambassador in Kathmandu. She was brought up with the idea that women were only born for household work, not for outside jobs. But working in this field for the last few years has given her confidence and taught her things she never thought she’d be able to do, including the ability to fix mechanical problems of her vehicles. Gyanu Maya Lama, who is 22 years old, used to work in Qatar doing manual labor, but now, as a tempo driver in Kathmandu, she earns better money and can live with dignity in her own country.
Working as a woman taxi driver also presents challenges. Women have to face rude passengers and harsh tempo owners. They have to do better than men at the same job because any mistakes they make will be blamed on gender differences. And they have to face people who still believe men are stronger and more suited to this challenging work, or that the women who drive taxis are all uneducated or morally loose. While women have long dominated occupations like selling vegetables and working in garment factories, many people still consider driving a man’s profession.
Women like Sita are proving the stereotypes wrong. The traffic police say women follow the traffic laws and drive more carefully than male drivers. Assistant Sub Inspector Rupa Rai reports that women drivers have been involved in a lower percentage of accidents than men, and that many of these accidents were due to male drivers trying to overtake the vehicles driven by women.
In the beginning, people used to line up on the road to watch women driving the tempos. But now they are used to them, and many people even prefer to use the tempos driven by women. The increase in women drivers on the road has accompanied a shift in the way Nepalese society thinks about women’s work.
A Central Bureau of Statistics labor survey in 2008 showed that 66% of women are now employed full time, and the number of women who own their own houses has increased over the past 10 years. The study also showed that men’s involvement in household chores has increased 9% in the past decade. According to Meghraj Gautam, a central member of the Drivers Labor Union, many husbands are helping with household work when the women are on the road driving tempos, which has allowed women to enter the field and continue this work.
Sita suggests that the government could further women’s participation in this growing profession by providing women affordable access to driving instruction. Nepal’s lawmakers are currently working on a new constitution, and Sita hopes that this document will include provisions to help women to enter new areas of leadership. Today, only 5 out of Nepal’s 219 judges are women, and roughly two-thirds of the constituent assembly are men. Nepal has an opportunity to support women like Sita who are already working challenging, non-traditional jobs, to further female empowerment and end gender discrimination. And to give Nepali girls many more strong role models like Sita to look up to when they dream about their futures.