Harmita Shrestha exudes confidence as she climbs down from her bike. She’d just arrived at work after dropping off her daughter at school.
The 39-year-old is one of the four female drivers for Sajha Yatayat’s new electric buses—and a proud one at that. She started her career as a tempo driver and has never looked back. From a 10-seater tempo to a 26-seater electric bus, it has been quite a ride for her.
Shrestha learned to drive when she was still a little girl growing up in Dharan. “It was my family’s white Martui van that I adored,” she says. She feels lucky that she gets to do what she loves.
She had never thought a woman could become a professional driver, a job almost exclusively associated with men even today. Then, when she came to Kathmandu, Shrestha saw women working as tempo drivers. Inspired by those women, she also got a license to drive a tempo and hit the career ground running, driving on the RNAC-Sinamangal route.
Shrestha went on to work as the driver for Durga Pokharel, former chairperson of National Women’s Commission, and for the United National Development Program (UNDP). She particularly enjoyed working with the UNDP, as she got to travel to many remote places of Nepal.
“This one time, I drove to a village in Madi for some field work and the villagers welcomed me with garlands, colors and musical instruments,” says Shrestha.
But a woman driver is seldom praised, let alone encouraged.
“Most people prefer male drivers because they are physically stronger and therefore considered more competent,” Shrestha says. She has been subjected to many stereotypes and discriminations for being a woman driver.
Within a month of joining Sajha, the city’s traffic authorities confiscated her license on four occasions. “I hadn’t breached any traffic regulation but still they tried to slap me with a 15,000-rupee fine,” she says. “My only fault was that I was a woman.”
One time a woman police officer hurled obscenities at Shrestha while she was parked at a designated bus stop in Maharajgunj. Shrestha found such behavior of one woman towards another deeply hurtful.
It was not so when she used to work for the UN. Back then, she says, traffic police were polite and considerate. “Maybe they are trained that way: to respect drivers in vehicles with blue number plates,” she says.
Shrestha is a hardworking mother of two children, whom she provides for working as a bus driver. She starts her job at 6:30 am and reaches home at around 8 pm. It is a difficult and thankless job, especially if you are a mother. All she desires is a modicum of respect while on the road. But that is hard to come by in a patriarchal society where nearly everything a woman does is a suspect.
By being on the road daily, driving her bus around the city, Shrestha has been fighting the old stereotypes. Every now and then, some of her passengers praise her work. These are the occasions that inspire her to continue.
Shrestha strongly believes that women should be given opportunities and proper environment to succeed, both in government and non-government sectors.
“Working women face unique challenges. For instance, we might be having a particularly difficult menstruation. Having proper toilets at bus stops would certainly make things a lot easier for us,” Shrestha says.
Shrestha finds the experience of driving an electric bus safe and more comfortable. “It takes a fair bit of skill but definitely less physical effort,” she says. “With electric vehicles, you also don’t get muscle soreness, which is a big thing for professional drivers.”
She believes Kathmandu’s traffic and pollution woes could be significantly eased by having more electric buses. To boot, there would also be more jobs for women.
Asked how long she plans on working as a driver, Shrestha replies: “If I could drive only electric vehicles, I could easily do this job until I am 60.”