Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal
Nepal

Laxmi Sharma, Nepal's first female tempo driver, says professional driving brought economic independence and opened the door for other women drivers. But challenging Nepalese gender stereotypes also brought many hardships.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Today, hundreds of female tempo drivers ply the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. The woman who paved the way for all of them is Laxmi Sharma, Nepal’s first female tempo driver.

“Every day, I had to fight battles in this male-dominated profession,” says Sharma, 65. “It was very frustrating to hold my ground in this patriarchal society. But I was strong-willed, and I never gave up.” 

A tempo is a three-wheeled, battery-powered vehicle that can accommodate up to 10 people.

Sharma married at 13, but her husband abandoned her 14 years later, leaving her to raise three daughters on her own.

“I worked as a housemaid to sustain my family, but it was from hand to mouth,” says Sharma, who did domestic work for 16 years.

In 1981, hoping for a better life for her daughters, Sharma sought a more lucrative career. She was illiterate but good with her hands. She also believed that a man’s job would yield more money.

She bought a tempo with 10,000 Nepalese rupees ($100) she borrowed from family members and hired a male driver to operate it.

Meanwhile, she trained to be a mechanic in an automobile workshop, studying motor mechanics in Nepal for eight months and in India for three months. Among other skills, she learned to repair a tempo.

After a few months, she realized that the wages she paid the tempo driver kept her from making any money, so she decided to drive the vehicle herself. She asked the operator she had hired to teach her how to drive the tempo and learned to drive in seven days.

Sharma drove a tempo without a license for four years, unaware she needed one until a traffic officer fined her.

At the time, some Nepalese women drove their private vehicles, but Sharma was the first woman to drive a vehicle used by the public, she says.

Driving a tempo brought Sharma economic independence and opened the door for other women, she says. But challenging Nepalese gender stereotypes also brought her many hardships.

“At the time I started to drive the tempo, women did not come out to work in public places,” Sharma says. “Back then, a woman riding a tempo, collecting the fare, and repairing the vehicle by herself was unusual and challenging work.”

When Sharma started driving a tempo, some people questioned her moral character, she says. Men harassed her — making sexual innuendos, pulling her hair, even trying to touch her. Sometimes even female passengers refused to pay the fare because, as a woman, she posed no threat.

“Nepal is not open to the idea of gender equality because the public is uneducated,” Sharma says. “I had to take self-defense training to protect myself.”

In spite of all the problems, Sharma earned 100 rupees ($1) a day, and her financial status gradually improved, she says. Using her savings and a bank loan, she eventually bought five tempos, leasing four of them to other drivers to further improve her income.

Operating like a shared taxi service, the tempo is the most popular vehicle in Kathmandu Valley, says Bishnu Prasad Dhital, chairman of the Clean Locomotive Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal, an organization working for the rights of tempo drivers. Since the tempo can be charged with electricity, it is environmentally friendly.

There are 700 tempos following 17 routes in Kathmandu, Dhital says. Female drivers operate 300 of them.

The small, lightweight tempos are easy to drive and provide work for women who are illiterate or have little education and would have difficulty finding other well-paying work in the city.

Sharma paved the way for these women, Dhital says. She is known as Nepal’s first female tempo driver and a leading female entrepreneur.

“Sharma has set an example and has encouraged women who are uneducated and financially weak to fend for themselves and their families,” Dhital says.

One driver inspired by Sharma’s example is Sarita K.C., 42, who has been driving a tempo for 12 years.

“Laxmi Sharma found light in a dark, dirt road and paved the way for women like us to financially support our families,” she says. “We are no longer limited to our kitchens. I have never met her, but I have listened to her inspiring interviews on the radio.”

In addition to inspiring female drivers, Sharma has also changed the perceptions of passengers, Dhital says.

“Passengers prefer tempos driven by women,” he says. “Female drivers are more careful in their duties. Therefore, they are less likely to be involved in road accidents. Children, young women and old people feel happy and safe when they see a female tempo driver.”

Sharma stopped driving tempos in 1988, after seven years of driving.

“The tempo business got problematic, as it required maintenance and cost money,” she says. “So, I sold three tempos to establish a business.”

Sharma continues this business, which makes handicrafts, today. Meanwhile, she says she feels proud to see more female tempo drivers on the roads of Kathmandu.

“Recently, I saw a female tempo driver,” Sharma says. “Her nature and her attitude were very bold. I saw a reflection of myself in her.”

Photos by Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

GPJ translated this article from Nepali.