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Way to emancipation

The Kathmandu Post, Nepal, 25 February 2018 - Along with the population shift into the cities, rural Nepali women have been increasingly migrating to urban areas in search of freedom for themselves and better education and healthcare for their children. The high cost of living in the cities forces them to work on construction sites or as street vendors and tea sellers. They also find work in food processing and packaging, dance bars, grocery stores, beauty parlours and boutiques. The informal economy is said to be exploitative, risky and a poverty trap, but, in fact, it has opened a door for women’s emancipation.

As per the general notion, the informal economy is unorganised, does not follow laws and is marginal. It was believed that once all countries became developed, the informal economy would become extinct. However, this has been proven wrong in the age of globalisation. The scope of the informal economy is widening due to job outsourcing and subcontracting of informal workers by corporates. Therefore, a new understanding of the informal economy is now necessary.

In the 1970s, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund campaigned for a neoliberal economy. As a result, many countries slashed their education, health and child care budgets. They also privatised large public companies. Profit seeking private companies reduced jobs and wages. The informal economy, where people get temporary jobs for low wages without pensions or benefits, expanded. The presence of women in the informal economy is higher due to cultural and gender norms such as restrictions on mobility.

Due to the preference for sons, Nepali women do not have access to higher education. Consequently, their presence in formal employment is minimal. As of 2014, women comprised only 10 percent of the civil servants in the country. The Labour Force Survey 2008 has defined the informal economy as any registered or unregistered firm that employs less than 10 persons. The beautician industry has been attracting women from various backgrounds. It is basically a self-employed informal sector which employs one or two persons as assistants for the owner.

A skilled trade

Four decades ago, there were few beauty parlours in Kathmandu. Not many women wanted to be beauticians. Only those who failed to get married or dropped out of studies were supposed to become beauticians. Pioneer beautician Kamala Shrestha imported the concept of beauty parlours as a commodity for mass consumption from Thailand. In 1979, she opened a beauty parlour in Kathmandu. She publicised the value and need for beauty care through Nepal Television after it was established in 1985. Today, the beauty industry is booming and provides jobs to thousands of women from diverse ethnic, educational and age groups.

Beauticians have formed their own organisations such as the Beautician Professional Association of Nepal (BPAN), National Beautician Union of Nepal (NBUN) and Nepal Beautician Union (NBU). The BPAN is affiliated with the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI). The NBUN is affiliated with the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, and the NBU is affiliated with the Nepal Trade Union Congress.

Nepali beauticians with English language skills migrate for work to countries like the UK, US, Canada and Australia. Those lacking English skills can get high paying jobs in the UAE and Qatar. A skilled beautician, whether a fourth grade dropout or a high school graduate, can easily migrate to foreign countries and return rich to lead a dignified life. Many young girls migrating from rural Nepal to urban areas have become successful beautician entrepreneurs.

Beautician organisations have created a dignified identity in society. They are in a position to negotiate with the government for their rights. Once, a BPAN member from a district in the Tarai was gang raped as she was on her way home. The BPAN and the FNCCI lobbied with the government, and the perpetrators were arrested immediately. These organisations have convinced the government to include beautician courses in the curriculum. The beautician profession is no more stigmatised in society.

The members of beautician organisations say that they came up with the idea of getting organised to preserve their identity, help each other and voice their concerns. French thinker Jacques Rancière has defined emancipation as something people do by themselves for their own cause. It is not something given by an outsider. Emancipation, unlike in the traditional sense, does not result from external intervention. Emancipation viewed in terms of a master and slave or a teacher and student is problematic because the slave always needs to be confirmed by his or her emancipator of his or her emancipation. Thus, emancipation is ever in question.

Nepali beauticians and employees in beauty parlours can speak out for more pay and better working conditions or special treatment from the state through their organisations. Some of these organisations are attempting to unite with international networks of informal workers. They may get help and guidelines from their peers in the global arena. Transnational networks of workers can even further their emancipation.


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