Women On the Road; Driving with Dignity
When discussing gender discrimination and while fighting women’s rights, we must not forget the women in Kathmandu who are driving the Tempos: Public Vehicles. Over the last few years the number of women drivers keeps climbing and some of them have even started to drive the Micro Bus, showing that there are no barriers for women trying to work in fields traditionally dominated by men. There are even some women driving for international organizations like the UN and embassies in Nepal.
A tempo is a three-wheeled battery-powered vehicle used as a taxi, whereas Micro Buses are small sized buses used as public vehicles. Though men have dominated this field, now it has begun to be claimed by women. There are more than 700 electric tempos in Kathmandu valley and about 150 regular female drivers, and 350 are part-time women drivers. Among them are around 70 women who own tempos which they have bought on a loan. Now some women have also started driving the Micro Bus which is quite challenging, but they are really doing well
“My work is my god, and it's not a wrong thing to worship god,” Sita says when I ask about her work. Sita Thapa is 34 years old and is from Nuwakot. She is one of the first five women Tempo Drivers of Nepal, and was even honored by the president of Maiti Nepal-Ms, Anuradha Koirala (CNN hero 2010) in International Women's Day 7 years ago.
Sita used to do manual labor filtering sand, when she came to Kathmandu with her three children 12 years ago. Her work wages and her husband's low salary however were not enough to fulfill her family's daily needs. After working hard for six months she got a job in a noodles factory for one year and then again in a plastic factory. Her life went on like that with little improvement. On the way to work and then back home she used to watch the women driving cars on the roads of Kathmandu. She never dreamt of owning her own car, as even fulfilling her daily needs was hard. However she used to dream that if somebody would teach her to drive and hire her, she would love to be a driver in Kathmandu. In the beginning she thought that only those who could read, write and knew English could drive these cars and as she had never gone to school she thought that it would be impossible for her to learn to drive.
One day at Sundhara, the heart of the city, she saw a woman getting out of a car after parking. She felt nervous to talk to her, but she really wanted to ask the lady how she became a driver. So she asked the lady if only literate people, who knew English very well, could learn to drive the cars. However the lady replied harshly that rather those people who could afford vehicles can drive one. That sentence pinched her heart, but she decided herself that she would learn driving one day despite the cost.
In the same day she heard the news about the first female tempo driver, Sita had a strong desire to meet the lady. However as she did not have her address or contact information she could not meet her. It was also hard to find the only Tempo driver in the big city of Kathmandu. It did not stop her from finding a way to learn to drive though. Sita knew one of the boys who used to drive a Tempo and asked him to teach her to drive. He replied that it would cost Rs. 5000 (72 $) and for SIta this was two months' salary. She promised him that she would pay half of the cost in the beginning, and half after completing the course. The boy agreed, and she began classes.
After spending hard earned money and her valuable time, she learned driving. But she hadn't had her own Tempo to drive it on the road to begin her new profession. She didn’t have driving license either. But luckily, Kumar sir, one of the tempo owners called her and told her that he will be helping her in all the documents work including the license and he even gave permission to drive his Tempo though she was very new to this field. The memory of her first driving on the road of Kathamndu city is still fresh in her mind and she still remembers being excited and nervous to drive in traffic.
Her first salary was Rs. 4000 and she had to drive from six am to seven in the evening. At that time her kids were very small, and she had to leave them at a neighbor's home to take care of them, promising to bring vegetables for them when she returned from her driving job.
She drove Kumar sirs' Tempo for several years and collected some money, and eventually was able to buy the new tempo with a loan in 2005. In between, she stopped driving and joined an NGO working for a marginalized cast and she had even thought about going abroad to work [The female population gone abroad for employment are 4538(2009) out of 242225]. However, driving was something she could never leave, so she came back to the same field. Now she owns two tempos, one of which she drives while the other is driven by a hired woman. Her monthly income from tempo is now around Rs. 25,000 per month (350$), of which she saves around $200 after fulfilling all of her family's needs and paying the loan installments to the bank.
Sita’s standard of living has been improved. With her income, she has shifted her children from government school to an English boarding school and all of them are doing well in their studies. She also manages to visit the school from time to time to see their improvements. She can now afford to eat meat each day and also provides nutritional food to her children. Sita’s husband is employed in Nepal’s Army so he hardly gets time to see them, but Sita manages it all. She looks after the expenses and takes care of the children's education. 'I can proudly say I am the man of the house in practical!' says Sita who has recently established a finance company for the women tempo drivers so that they can do some savings and even get the loans when they need. [ Wife's cash earning compared to husband's cash earning; more than husband's earning is 5% whereas less than husband's earning is 69.6 %(2009 survey)]
Sita represents numbers of other women in Kathmandu who are making their living driving Tempos. Driving =private vehicles is not a new, but women are still new to this male dominated industry. The women in Kathmandu started driving tempos in 2000 as a profession and the numbers of women learning to drive have grown ever since. These women have been good drivers; even the traffic police say they follow the traffic laws and drive very carefully, as opposed to the male drivers. “We find very much less percent of accident done by women drivers in the Kathamandu city. We have even found that some accidents happened just because the men drivers tried to overtake the vehicles driven by women. Otherwise the accident cases are very few in women's cases,” says Assistant Sub Inspector Rupa Rai.
Females are no less capable of operating automobiles, yet the stereotype that they are still exists. In the beginning, people used to line up on the road to watch women driving the tempos. But now they prefer to use the tempos driven by women. Many people in Kathmandu consider women drivers to be more careful than men and more likely to obey traffic laws. According to Meghraj Gautam, a central member of the Drivers Labor Union, these days there are a number of men who also help in household work when the women are on the road driving tempos, which has helped women to enter or continue this work.
Central Bureau of Statistics in the Nepal Labor Force Survey 2008, second survey (the first of which was done in 1998): The involvement of men in household work has increased by 9%. Looking at men’s involvement in household work over the last 15 years, they have spent 5-7 hours a week whereas women spent 23.5 hours a week. The numbers of families with female ownership on house has also increased from 49.8 percent to 63.2 in 10 years in 2008. Among the 417434 total households in Nepal, there are 32766 female ownerships with house, land and livestock(2001). Percent of literate women has increased from 35.8 % to 53.1 percent. The number of women who have never been to school has been decreased 75.7 percent to 58.2 which is very much acceptable. The women who are financially active are 66 % (40 hours a week).
Tempos are easy to operate and are safe, and one can earn good money from driving them, which are maybe some of the reasons why women are attracted to this industry. The tempo working day- 6 am to 7 pm, is also a comfortable time for women. They also manage to have enough time for lunch and to prepare dinner in the evening after work. Tempo driving has employed many house wives and girls who are in the capital in search of employment.
This is also true that being a woman in the driving industry is not so easy in this society. They have to face rude passengers and the harsh owners of the tempos. If they make some mistakes, people say it is due to gender differences. There are some challenges too, for example; people think that women in this profession are not good- morally. Women in the driving profession also feel that they should be given a literacy program so that they could understand the terms in this field. And they also feel the lack of literate people in this field. The lack of literate people has created the stereotype that this is the work of only illiterate people who do not have any other options except entering into this field. People say that men are born stronger and women are weak and are not able to do these challenging jobs. However women like Sita are proving them wrong.
Women are employed in many work fields these days. Comparing to men's involvements, women involvements are still less in many fields [Women in civil service till 2009 were 8769 out of 78138 of total number]. Owning the shops, selling vegetables, working on wedges, garments factory are the major areas [Women involved in manufacturing (2006/7 survey) make up 17.6 % of the industry] where we can see the female involvements is high. Driving, however, is something apart from all of these kinds of job. Many people still consider it a man's profession.
The women in the driving profession are more confident and are even managing their families. Binita Shrestha, 29 years old, drives for the Swiss ambassador in Kathmandu now, after driving her tempo for one and a half years. She agrees that women are brought up in an environment where women are taught that they are only born for household work, not for outside jobs. But working in this field for the last few years, she has learned many things and is even able to fix mechanical problems of the vehicles. She earns Rs. 25,000 per month (358$). Gyanu Maya Lama, 22 years old, was once in Qatar doing manual labor, but now she is more satisfied driving the Tempo in Kathmandu- earning better money to fulfill her daily needs and also living with the dignity in her own country.
“There are good foreign donors who spend money for the driving training for women but these funds have been misused by some people by showing the false records. It has been seen necessary that donors should check the documents carefully and should consult the related people before sending the fund otherwise men would be selling the women's name and the funds would be misused as it has been done by some,” says Sita Thapa who has also been a member of Electric Vehicle Association of Nepal (EVAN) for some years.
The government also should give more facilities for women, so they have easy and affordable access to learn to drive and be in this growing profession. The women in the driving industry are a testimony to the empowerment of women in this country where women have been discriminated in many ways. If people accept women in as tempo drivers more easily, then this can encourage women to enter into many other fields where women have traditionally been excluded [Women judges in court (2009) are 5 out of 219 of total numbers of judges and Women in Police Service are 2999 out of 55259 polices in Nepal (2009)].
Hopefully the new constitution will also include some facilities for women to have opportunities in different fields in Nepal [out of 601 constituent assembly members, the female number is 197 which is the new hope for women of Nepal being represented in decision making levels]. It is time to break the stereotypes that women are only born to be involved in household work. By encouraging women to be in other fields and by supporting the women who are already doing these challenging jobs, female empowerment can continue and gender discrimination may decrease.
Creating equity is most important to create and maintain equality in the society either it is for women climbing world's highest Mountain-Mt. Everest or for women driving Tempos on the road of the city.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.