Sixteen-year-old Hema wants to be a nurse. But to fulfil her dream, she performs at a dance bar every evening – even if it means gyrating around a pole, stripping and giving company to strangers at night.
At a dimly lit dance bar in Thamel in the heart of Kathmandu, she performs to foot-tapping Bollywood numbers in front of customers seated on chairs around an elevated dance floor.
Hema (name changed) hardly receives any attention from the customers who are busy sharing drinks and intimate moments with other teenaged girls – also called “comfort girls” – till she sheds some more clothes. Semi-clad Hema finishes her act without any applause.
Soon another teenaged girl replaces her. Hema retires to the green room, gets dressed and returns – this time to sit with the customers.
“Namaste aap kaise hai (hello, how are you),” Hema tells this IANS correspondent in Hindi with a tired smile. “Why are you sitting without a drink? Buy one for yourself. I will take pineapple juice,” she says.
She knows the tricks of the trade well. The dance bar makes money every time a customer places an order for himself or the comfort girls.
“From where in India do you hail?” she asks. But when questioned about her own private life, she is on her guard.
“Are you from a news channel? Why are you asking these questions?” she asks, visibly uneasy. Once she is told that she is talking to an Indian student and her doubts are laid to rest, she proceeds with the answer.
“I was in Class 8 when I joined this place last year. My father, who works in India, stopped sending us money. But I wanted to continue my studies and become a nurse. My elder sister left me here,” she said.
Rough estimates suggest there could be more than 1,000 dance bars in Kathmandu – and each has around 10-15 girls who take turns to perform. These bars open at 6 p.m. and don’t close until midnight, attracting a constant flow of visitors – in 2007 Nepal got over 500,000 tourists.
Inside the bars, girls from poverty-stricken corners of Nepal dance away, hoping to fulfil their simple dreams some day. The parents of some are never told about their profession, others let their daughters go on as long as the money keeps coming.
“Since there is no other job opportunity, everyone lands up here. My employer pays me Nepali Rs.3,000 ($40) per month. Clients usually give a good tip to all comfort girls just for sitting with them. Sometimes I am paid handsomely for going out with them,” says Hema, who joined the dance bar last year and hopes her run there will end in another six-seven months.
“More than half the money is spent on room rent, makeup, grocery and other necessary items. The rest goes into my education and to my sister. I hardly save anything.”
So when does she study? She said girls like her work at dance bars for a few months. “When we have enough savings, we quit and our employers cooperate with us,” Hema says before leaving for her next dance performance.
But quitting is never easy, given the fast money the profession provides.
Asmita, 18, had similar dreams. She wanted to become an airhostess but lack of money brought her here two years ago. She is still struggling. “I think once you are into a dance bar, it is impossible to shake off its lure,” she explains.
Though dance bars are not illegal in Nepal, stripping is. But in a nation where 30 percent of the 30 million population is below the poverty line, few seem to care.
Naina Kala Thapa, chairperson of the Nepal Women Commission, says it is the lure of fast money that brings many girls here.
“We have a somewhat open culture here in Nepal. Parents don’t mind sending their girls to dance bars because they are poor. Unemployment is another major reason and here most of the inexperienced girls and minor ones come to seek job,” Thapa told IANS.
Padma Mathema, a member of the Nepal Human Rights Commission, said this industry employs a large number of people; so the government cannot afford to put a ban on it till enough job opportunities are created.
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