Text by Ankita Jain
Overcoming societal obstacles, more women drivers have chosen driving as their career and source of economic sustenance. However, it is still uncommon to find many women chauffeurs. What’s rare is to board a bus and expect a woman behind the wheel. In this edition of B360, we bring to your notice women who have chosen to take the wheel to a secure future.
Muna Ghimire Shrestha
She realised her passion for driving heavy equipment vehicles when she was quite young. But what she did not realise was the public accolade she would receive as Nepal’s first female excavator operator!
Born to the family with no sons, she was often looked down upon as a girl child by relatives and society. She wanted to financially support her family and triumphed against many odds to take up a profession that was chosen only by a handful of women globally. “I have never accepted that driving is only for men. I went to Nepalgunj to work in an office but eventually landed in the heavy equipment department,” Shrestha smiles. She started driving at the age of 17 and became a driver with the Government of Nepal under Heavy Equipment Division in 1999.
She started a with mere Rs. 5,000 a month and today she earns more than Rs. 25,000 a month excluding her on-field earnings. For the past 20 years, this mother of two from Gorkha has travelled to nearly every corner of the country bending all the unwritten rules of the road. She further worked in Gujarat, India from 2005-2008 where she was first honoured. “I was first felicitated in a foreign land,” she recalls. Post 2008, she has been awarded, honoured and felicitated by many individual organisations. “I have lost count now. My entire house is filled with awards,” she shares.
In the near future, she wants to start a driving school for women concentrating on heavy equipment vehicles. “Even today, there are many women who come to learn from me and I am happy to teach them how to operate an excavator,” she says. She believes that every problem has a solution. “Everything seems difficult, but it is the way we deal with it that is important.”
Beli Tamang is a tough lady hardened by her struggles as she became the sole provider for her family when her husband left her. When you see her behind the wheels of her taxi expertly maneuvering the unruly cacophonic traffic, you spot nothing but a focused taxi driver. There are only 10-15 female taxi drivers in the capital.
“I have been driving a taxi for the past two years. I do not have the choice of refusing a passenger because they provide me my daily meal,” says 37 year old Tamang. She quit driving a tempo and became a taxi driver, “I drove a three-wheeler for seven years and saved Rs 10 lakhs from my earnings. Later, with that amount and the gold jewellery I had, I made the down payment for a car,” she shares. Today, she drives and takes home Rs. 50,000-60,000 every month.
She toils from 9am to 9pm driving in and out of the valley. Despite the luxury of a car, she misses the simplicity of driving a tempo. “Driving a taxi involves a lot of expenses. I pay Rs. 21,000 every month as my car loan EMI. Besides, insurance, servicing, petrol, and other expenses take their toll. There is hardly any savings,” she explains. She quickly adds, “I don’t take a day off and only if I have a spare hour, I care to eat something from a nearby shop.”
Tamang is a mother of three and the only breadwinner in the family. A major challenge faced by female drivers in the city, she says, is the unavailability of hygienic toilets. “I drive throughout the day and at times I have to drive from one corner of the city to the other looking for the toilet. There have been incidents where I was fined for parking the car near the toilet area,” she shares. She is registered with Sarathi cab services which she finds to be very user friendly.
Harmita Shrestha, who started off as a tempo driver, says that she is delighted to see multitudes of young women drivers supporting their families financially through driving as a career choice.
In a desire to break the notion that driving is a man’s job, Shrestha learned to drive a Maruti four-wheeler when she was in class nine. Despite being equipped with the driving skills, when she shifted to Kathmandu post-SLC in the mid-1990s, she started her career as a tailor. “It was a low paying job which I wasn’t interested in at all,” she says. Nevertheless, she continued the job for the next five years and finally gathered courage to learn to drive a tempo.
Born and raised in Bhanu Chowk in Dharan, she got her license from Birgunj and started her driving career as a tempo driver. “I used to drive on the Nepal Airlines to Boudha and Jorpati route every day,” she says. Though she earned well, she was a victim of discrimination and harassment by the traffic police. “Men would tease me. The traffic police also made life tough,” she recalls.
Later, she was offered a chauffeur’s job. “I worked for the government,” she says. She worked for Durga Pokharel, then chairperson of National Women’s Commission. Claiming to be the first woman driver to work in a government office, she used to earn Rs. 3,930 as monthly salary then.
A single mother of two, Shrestha was also offered a job with the UN. She took the opportunity, “I had a starting salary of Rs. 14,000 per month which was a huge amount then for a driver,” she recalls.
41-year-old Shrestha today is the only female driver for Sajha Yatayat which operates 71 large-body buses across the valley.
Merina Shrestha grew up playing with toy cars. “I never demanded dolls or anything girly. I used to steal my aunt’s scooter or my grandpa’s bike and used to try my hand at it. Well, the love for two-wheelers is ethereal,” Shrestha says. Later, a push from her fiancé was all she required to conquer the roads on her Royal Enfield. Besides being a passionate biker, she is the team manager of Riders Unified NSC; an event manager and a freelancer who has been part of Nepal Riders Meet 2017, 9th Enfield Rendezvous, Pokhara Run 2017 and many other biking events.
She has been riding for the past five years and has made biking her profession. “I do various stunts like compass, landscape, burnouts, helicopter, etc for different brands and participate in various bike-related activities,” she shares. About taking up biking as a full-fledged career, she informs, “No, we can’t depend on it solely. The pay factor is not equal for men and women. Also, biking as a profession needs support from the association and the government.” She adds, “The gear required for female riders is also lacking.”
She works for the development of motorsports in Nepal through the platform, Riders Unified and has organised more than 50 events. Furth to promote the involvement of women in motorsports, they have been organising programs like the Ladies Riders Ride, Stunt Show and Female Ride Day. “These initiatives have led us to win various prizes, including first and second place under the Women’s Category race in Racemandu, Biking Queens India, Women Empowerment Award and more,” she shares.
Recently, Shrestha also represented Nepal in women’s rider world relay, a worldwide motorcycle relay, intended to encourage women in motorsports.
She emphasises on establishing a safe and systematic riding culture in Nepal by producing responsible riders. “Today, influenced by social media many girls want to be bikers and use it as a fashion statement. This miscommunication needs to be addressed and we are working on it,” she says.