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.[paging]
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.