This weekend was a weekend of learning new things. I helped out a woman who works at the shelter, Goma, to finish up her masters thesis, and I went to a dance bar, one of the locations that the women who use the NGO are working at.
Goma needs to write her masters thesis in English, even though she goes to school in Nepal, so she has been getting help from others who are better at English. We worked on first organizing the data that she had collected, then analyzing it through graphs and charts (all that High School science Excel use finally came in handy!).
To collect her data she had gone into massage parlors throughout the city and conducted a survey asking about their caste, marital status, age, reason for coming to Kathmandu, problems that the women have at work, if they are coerced into sexual activities, if they know about HIV/AIDs, etc.
It was really interesting, and also really sad, inputting a lot of the data. Most of the women/girls interviewed were either between 14 and 20, or when they had started working at the massage parlors they were between 14 and 20. Nearly 100% of them talked about being abused by their customers and by the owners of the parlors that they worked at: they talked about being physically, sexually, and also financially abused (The owners of the massage parlors never actually give them their full salary, but usually keep around 50-75% of the women’s earnings for themselves).
The NGO does a lot of work to try and motivate the women towards self-empowerment. They go out into the informal entertainment sector (this consists of dance bars, massage parlors, cabin restaurants and the like…places where the women are being sexually exploited at their workplaces), and encourage the women there to join their union groups. The idea behind these groups is to give these women a forum to talk about the problems that they are having at work, what they need and want, and give them the courage to stand up for themselves, too. They also teach them about encourage the women to come talk to the NGO, and the NGO will help them to get more education, as well as training in other skills so they can get other jobs.
The large majority of the women and girls working in this industry are illiterate or lacking in even a primary education; because society tends to assume that the women will get married and wont need an education. This backfires, though, because when they come looking for a job it is, in part, their lack of education that lands them in these seedy jobs.
More on all of this later.
The other interesting thing I did this weekend was go to one of the dance bars! One of the other volunteers here, an American named Lauren, is doing her research at Raksha for her PhD. She wanted to go see one of the dance bars in action, so I volunteered to go with her. We also went with her Australian friend, Hugh, so it felt a little less sketchy.
The dance bar itself had one sign outside, and then you had to go in through this store front, out the back, and up another set of stairs to get to it. There was no obvious storefront, so to get to it you actually have to be trying to find the place to get there. When we got in it looked innocent enough: a club-y type of atmosphere, big couch seating, and a stage in the middle. They sat us down, and every few minutes a girl would come out on the stage and shuffle around for the duration of a song. Some of the girls would be out sitting in the booths; the rest would disappear behind a curtain behind the stage.
I think the scariest part of it was that it looked so much more innocent than it actually is. If I had just stumbled into it it would just seem like a semi-nice place to get a drink, with some entertainment on stage. But coming to it from Raksha, I know the types of things that happen at the dance bars, and that they involve a lot more than just shuffling around on stage in too-big heels. I’m glad that I got to go to one, though.
It helps me to know more about the places that these women are coming from, and it is a learning experience, too, every day, while I learn more and more about what is going on. Lauren and I are going to try and go to some other dance bars, too, to see what they are like. We think that the one that we went to is one of the least seedy ones, and it will be interesting to see what the others are like, and how they compare!