Women forum for Women Nepal (WOFOWON) is an organisation established by women working in informal and entertainment sectors. Starting with a small group of women, they now have more than 300 members. WOFOWON provides a space for women working in these sectors to come and share their issues, support each other and collectively advocates for recognition of their work and demand rights as workers.
Can you tell us briefly about how WOFOWON became an organization?
During the 10 years long civil war many people, including women and girls, migrated to the city for security and livelihood. For similar reasons, I too entered Kathmandu in 2059 (2002) and started looking for job. No one was ready to give me job accusing me of being a Maoist. It was difficult for us even to find an accommodation to rent. It was five of us that were together at that time. We sold all our jewellery but it was still not enough for us to survive in Kathmandu. We tried to find work in garment factories and finance companies but no one trusted us to give us work. We then started looking for jobs in restaurants and initially started work in cabin restaurants. With the help of some colleagues, I started working as singer in Dohori(local songs) restaurants. At that time, finding that job was like finally meeting God! That was the beginning of my life, I felt.
In the course of work, we found out about WOREC’s Chahari program which was established to provide women’s health consultation services and also had English language classes for women. I joined the program to learn English. I found it was not only about teaching language but also informed on women’s rights. I have always been vocal, even as child. When I see any injustice in society - I wanted to speak out against it. But in my real life, as a worker in a restaurant, there’s no institution for a women to lodge complaint when atrocities are committed against her. Police would conduct raid and arrest us, different people would physically beat us. I used to feel frustrated that there was no one to speak for us or hear what we had to say. Then I attended a capacity building training on women’s right conducted by Dr. Renu Rajbhandari of WOREC where we were motivated to fight for ourselves. This training gave us a new life. Nine of us working in restaurant and entertainment sectors then established Women Forum for Women Nepal with an aim to fight for women’s rights and establishing human rights for all. This is the first organisation in Nepal established by women working in entertainment sectors and since then we have been raising issues faced by women workers in these sectors. We are now 365 members strong. We are also included in trade unions and have two local committees. Our movement for the recognition and establishment of rights of women workers in entertainment sectors continues.
Tell us about the activities you conduct and why are those activities needed? How do you reach out to more women in this sector?
As we said, WOFOWON works for promoting and establishing labour rights and women’s rights for women workers in informal and entertainment sectors. We conduct public awareness raising campaigns, activities for women empowerment, organising campaigns for empowerment, and support and advocate for our rights.
In our programs, we highlight the issues of violence, labour exploitation, sexual violations and exploitations faced by women in informal and entertainments sectors and organise events to generate pressure for ensuring labour and human rights for these workers.
We have an outreach programme to reach out to all women working in these sectors. Through this outreach program, our members reach out to women workers in their work places to inform them about our organisation and its work. We encourage them to come visit our organisation to find out more about our work and be a member. Women members create an environment to support each other and to empower each other. We provide counselling services to women that have faced violence by their employers, co-workers, police, family or their society. If necessary, we provide referral. There are women that come for other services we provide such as health, legal assistance, psychological assistance and skill development trainings where we meet them on daily basis too.
We currently work within the three cities of the valley – Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. We want to expand our network in other districts but for various reasons, we have not been able to do so at the moment.
You mentioned that you are included in trade unions. How do you work with trade unions and how do they support your work?
Only three years ago, none of the trade unions were ready to include women workers in these sectors in their unions. Since last year, 112 women have been registered as members of Free All Nepal Hotel, Casino and Restaurant Workers Union (NFHU). As I mention earlier, we have two local committees as well. The two committees are in Thamel and Gongabu areas around which most women workers are employed. These committees within their specific work areas address issues of women workers. There are 11 active members in these committees and these committees have strongly supported our demand for a safe social environment and ensuring human rights for our workers. Currently, the Union is supporting us in our call to the state for inclusion of informal and entertainment workers under the labour right framework. The Union also support us by providing us legal assistance and motivating us to unite for labour rights.
What is your biggest concern at the moment?
Our biggest concern is the physical and social insecurity of women workers. There is absolutely no security for women workers. When we return home from work at night, we worry whether we will reach our home alive. We worry about the police that are supposed to be there for security – do we have to face physical and sexual violence from them? We have to lie to our family and society about the nature of our work because our work is not recognised as “good work”. Until the state recognises our work and us as formal workers, these issues will continue.
Do you want to talk about the issue of safe migration of women in entertainment sectors? What do they need to migrate safely?
Safe migration as I understand is people moving from their original place to another with their own will, including from one country to another to migrate, for work or other purposes. It is right of every person to be able to migrate. Many women in the informal sectors are internal migrants. Some have come through friends, others through relatives. Some also migrated because of discrimination and violence they faced either in family or society. There is also a large number of women in this sector that have migrated India, China and gulf countries. If we look at it from positive way, women have taken big leaps in asserting their right to mobility and freedom which has challenged our patriarchal society. Women have learned to fight against all odds. The State should take this into account and establish safe migration rights of women. NGOs and other stakeholders also need to take account of women’s right to migrate safely.
For the safe migration of women, the current policies and regulations in place needs to be implemented effectively. Especially the policy regarding freedom of movement of women needs to be strengthened and implemented. Nepal should respect its international commitment towards economic, social and cultural rights of women. The government should appreciate women’s rights to freedom of movement and ensure that the movement, their migration is safe whether within the country or abroad.
Please tell us about your current advocacy efforts.
The main issue for now is ensuring a dignified environment for women working in restaurants and inclusion of women in informal sectors within the labour rights framework. We are demanding social security, end of social discrimination, end of culture of dehumanising women in entertainment sectors, ensuring labour rights and human rights for the women working in informal and entertainment sectors.
We are also actively working towards changing the perception of all stakeholders and society towards entertainment sector workers through various media outlets. We want them to not look upon us as ill of society, not have to hide our occupation from our family and society and establish this sector as a formal employment sector. We want a positive outlook for entertainment sector as one of the various forms of livelihood. We are working towards creating this awareness through public awareness campaigns via songs, dance and dramas utilising various media.