Jyoti* is 24 years old and lives in Kathmandu. “When I told my husband that I don’t like this work, he said if you don’t work it will be difficult to survive. He told me to work because we won’t be able to achieve happiness without suffering. At that time, I was in love with him and felt like our lives would be ok. But my husband didn’t do anything. I worked for three years, while he didn’t work at all.”
“I was born in the Eastern district of Nepal and moved to Kathmandu with my family. We were poor and went to government school, which was very tough for my parents. When I was in class eight, mum became ill, and this left her disabled. Dad used to carry loads as a wage labourer but couldn’t pay our school fees, so I left school. My younger sister studied up to class ten and then went to India.
The whole family got torn apart. At that time my mum was mentally ill and we had no money. My elder brother was into bad habits.. After that I got married and my husband brought me here to work in a massage parlour. I took care of him but he gave me a lot of pain and eventually went abroad. He couldn’t earn abroad and spent a lot of money.
Mum had worked hard to raise us and educate us, but no one was there for mum when she died. My dad is still alive, and I am taking care of him and my younger sister by working. Even when he broke his hand, dad worked hard to carry loads just so he could pay our school fees.
I was raised here in Kathmandu. My parents used to fight when I was small but stopped as we grew older. Mum became ill when I was in Class 8 and lost her mind. Although we spent a lot of money on her treatment, we couldn’t provide a good standard of care. She was on her own, her brothers didn’t look after her, I feel sad about that. If I had been earning then, I could have looked after her.
Later, dad went to India. He went there and did a lot of work while I stayed here. I ended up in this parlour after getting married, but I have now left my husband. He threatens me and says bad things about me but I keep quiet. He used to cause me a lot of suffering, but now I am independent and I don’t have much trouble with him.
I don’t remember much about my village (region east of Kathmandu). After my eldest brother died, we came to Kathmandu. I had two brothers but after one died, there are just three of us; my younger sister, older brother and I. My mum became ill when I was 14 years old. I was studying at that time. Mum used to work as a wage labourer. Dad also used to carry loads. It was good then. After mum became ill, she couldn’t stand my dad and used to beat him. She became mentally ill, so she only used to love our brother, and didn’t care about us. Dad started sleeping on the roads: he got a lot of beatings at that time. Dad didn’t raise his hand because mum was ill, instead he suffered a lot.
We did so many things to try and help mum, but it was no use. We went to the asylum the doctor had recommended, but we had to pay ten thousand per week. We admitted her there for a week but there was no progress in her state, and we also couldn’t afford to keep her there, we brought her home and she passed away.
It has been five years since my mum died. At the beginning dad didn’t allow us to work, he worked alone. My elder brother was on his own, he used to smoke ganja (marijuana) and beat me and my younger sister. Dad is almost 80 years old now; he can’t work anymore. After mum died, my dad and younger sister moved to India. I am not in contact with my elder brother anymore. He couldn’t stay here as he was close to mum. So, I started living here with my didi (sister) who returned with my dad after two years in India. They went to a place called Ranipur in India, there my dad used to carry loads and my younger sister worked in catering. I stayed with my cousin and worked in a small vendor business. After that, I met my husband and got married. I didn’t want to go to India so I didn’t go along with my dad and younger sister. Dad had told me to come along with them, he had said we would do whatever to support each other, but I said I do not want to leave. At that time, I had already grown older and could understand things.
I studied up to class ten before I left my studies but haven’t collected the certificate. I left after taking the test (pre-SLC examination, “test” and the School Leaving Certificate-SLC were the grade 10 examinations held in Nepali education grading system before the current SEE examinations was applied). Dad couldn’t pay the school fees after mum died. Didis used to work as vegetable vendors, I used to help them and got some money. They used to treat me well but later when dad returned from India, they told my dad that I didn’t support them in buying food and paying rent. After that, dad, my younger sister and I started living in a rented place together. Dad didn’t work at that time, while my younger sister used to work in a cloth shop. Dad had brought some money from India, and we used that money for a while. I searched for work but couldn’t find any as I didn’t have an education. Everyone asked for knowledge in computers and if I could speak English.
I started working in a spa only after I eloped and got married when I was 17 years old. My dad had told me not to marry inter-caste so I eloped. He is Shrestha (one of the castes in Newar ethnicity in Nepal). His mit-aama (godmother) was in Bhaktapur, so I stayed there. She didn’t ask my caste and any other background. I was told that foreigners would come in the spa, and I could earn 500 to 1000 rupees. I entered Thamel (popular tourist destination in Kathmandu) for the first time then – I had only heard about Thamel before. One guest selected me and bad things were happening there. I didn’t know. Bad things meaning, I had to have sex with the clients. It was not only a spa, but there was massage as well. My husband had known about that before I started working, he could have told me, but he sent me there because of money. I felt very awkward in the beginning. Mit-aama had sent me there.
When I had sex with my husband for the first time, I felt very bad. I felt like I should not do this work. We suffered a lot; we didn’t have anything to eat and were living with others. So, I worked and am still working. I sent my husband abroad (Malaysia). When I told my husband that I don’t like this work, he said if you don’t work it will be difficult to survive. He told me to work because we won’t be able to achieve happiness without suffering. At that time, I was in love with him and felt like our lives would be ok. But my husband didn’t do anything. I worked for three years, while he didn’t work at all. He used to say that after he went abroad, then I could leave this work.
He returned from Malaysia after one year, where he didn’t earn anything. We had taken out a loan when he first left. I paid all those debts. Next, he went to Bahrain. He returned after five months, and then he went to Romania. I left him because he did this, and he didn’t work after returning to Nepal. He used to hang around with girls, go to clubs at night and not come back home until early in the morning. I had to work hard, and he used to enjoy himself with other girls. It has been two years since I have left him. Maybe he is around here, I do not know. He hasn’t divorced me yet.
Most clients who come to the spa are Nepali. Due to Covid 19, there are no foreigners. Other than that, Indians and local Madhesis (people who live in the madhesh -southern part of Nepal bordering India) and Nepalis come. The owners of the spa used to stay here but now they do not. Now there are didis (co-workers) who are there. The rooms of the spa are like rooms at home. We have to work there from nine in the morning till seven in the evening. We get the earnings daily, not monthly. Before lockdown we could make about 1000 to 1500 rupees but now, it’s about 500 rupees per day, we can only buy vegetables with that.
People do not come for massage. Only a few foreign women come, most of the clients are males. Four of us work in the spa – one bahini (co-worker younger sister), me, and one from around nearby area. Sometimes the clients tell us that ‘we have paid so you have to do whatever we say’, some use bad words and swear at us. Some are understanding and understand that we do this work out of necessity, but most people who come are bad. Regarding money, the clients pay the money to the owner and the owner pays us later. Whatever happens we get the money. For massage we get 25% of the amount paid and for sex we get half the amount. I was brought to work in that place by mit-aama by trickery, others are also brought here with deceit. There was no other work. I couldn’t do other work because I was just married and was living in other people’s houses, there was not even a place for me to sleep then.
The mistake in my life is that I entered this work. No one at home knows about my work. I haven’t told my dad. My younger sister is the only one who knows about it. I told her once when police had taken me into custody. The police came to check and when they took me into custody, I had to tell my younger sister. I told her not to tell dad. Even when we are not working, the police come and take us. My dad can’t sleep until I come back home from work. The police also give us trouble sometimes. They ask us to come along with them saying it’s just for a meeting etc. when they are angry. They haven’t asked for sex yet, but some ask for money and try to blackmail us saying that they will inform others.
If we do not wear the uniform, then they take us. At work, we have to wear a white shirt, so we change at the spa. I had an identity card, but now I don’t. If we do not wear our uniform and do not have an identity card, then the police take us . I heard that they are checking uniform and ID these days, but they didn’t come to our workplace yet. People were caught from Narshing Chowk (name of one of the junctions in Thamel).
The owner of the spa is not a bad person and does not treat us badly. I have been doing the same work from the beginning. There is Ruchita* didi. The place is owned by her and her husband. She doesn’t look after guests; she is a masseuse. I won’t do this work for a long time, maybe for one more year and after that I will do some small business, like open a shop. I have planned like that. If there hadn’t been lockdown, I would have already left this job, but during lockdown a lot of money was spent because we had to stay at home and there was no work. I have some savings, around five to six lakh rupees. It has been four years since I have been working and I have been able to save that much, especially after being separated from my husband.
I am not worried about anything other than my dad. Sometimes I worry that if something happens to me then who would take care of him. My younger sister would survive. She is 13 now and she works in handicraft. I have heard that my elder brother is married and lives in Eastern district now, but I don’t know. I don’t go to the village that often. I went once and stayed for a month. No one knows about my work, or if they do, no one has said anything about it to me. Once someone from the village came to the spa but that was it, otherwise there is no difficulty.
I feel that I have done the right thing by separating from my husband. He used to threaten me constantly, saying that he will report me to the police and tell them bad things about me. He accused me of all my wrong doings as if I had betrayed him, so I told him that I started this work because of him. It has been two years since we last spoke. I called him last time for a divorce and he has agreed. I visited his house after getting married but now I am not in contact with any of his family.
I have been working in the spa for three years. My relationship with my husband lasted only around one year. If he had treated our marriage well, maybe it would have continued. But he went abroad and had affairs with other girls, and he would send money to them. I didn’t know about this; he didn’t send me any money. He used to send ten thousand when he got his salary and that’s all. It seems men don’t send money if they do not have kids. I have seen other friends’ lives work that way. My friends’ husbands ask after their wives and children and send them money, but my husband never did those things. He used to call me sometimes and that’s it. I never doubted him. Maybe he used to doubt me. I never asked him where he went and what he did when he didn’t return home at nights. He was free. Then people started talking about him, saying that he needs this kind of woman and that kind of woman. His own girlfriend also told me that he is like that. So, I changed my number, and he hasn’t called me since. The reason I am working here is because of my marriage. If I had obeyed what my dad had told me, I wouldn’t be here today. I met him through a friend and eloped with him after three months. I had introduced him to dad and dad had told me “He is not good for you.” All this happened because I didn’t listen to my dad.
The happiest moment is when my dad is happy. He becomes happy when I do things that he would want. Like, he says he wants something to eat and he becomes happy when I bring that to him. He now stays at home watching tv all day. We live in a two-room apartment, and the rent is 9000 rupees a month. I share my feelings with my younger sister but do not share with anyone else. My plan is I will move on from here and have my own business. I won’t marry again because I have understood what marriage is. I don’t trust any men now. I will live with my dad. That’s it.”
*All names have been changed.