Women in the driving seatDriving three-wheelers allows women to stand on their own two feet
Indra Maya Shrestha was raised in a village in Kavre by a sick mother and a father who could not afford to send her to school. She was always fascinated seeing people driving cars in the movies, and came to Kathmandu aged 17 with a dream of driving a car herself.
But city life was not what she imagined, jobs were hard to come by, and getting a license was not so easy twenty years ago. One day, she rode a Safa Tempo electric three wheeler and was surprised to see a woman driving it.
“That is when I thought, if those women can do it, so can I,” Shrestha recalls.
It took her a year to get a driving license and become a Safa operator. Today, she owns her own three-wheeler and runs a charging station in Mahankal which can charge 35 battery-powered vehicles at one go.
Shrestha drives along four routes in the Sankhamul-Chabahil-Boudha-Kapan area with fellow female tempo operators Sunshang Ghising and Saraswoti Moktan. There were at most 20 female Safa Tempo drivers 20 years ago. Today there are 500.
Saraswati Moktan came to Kathmandu from Hetauda as a newly married woman in 2002. Her husband took a job as a tempo operator, and when she found out that women drove the tempos too, she learned to drive as well.
“My husband taught me to drive but when it was time to get a license, he stopped me,” recalls Moktan, who spent the next few years raising her son. “But in 2011, I put my foot down, this time he didn’t stop me.”
Sunshang Ghising grew up in a family of five siblings in Dolakha. “My family had to wait for Dasain to wear nice clothes. How could my parents have afforded to send five kids to school?” she says.
Ghising came to Kathmandu as a young mother 10 years ago, and initially worked as a seamstress. After the 2015 earthquake, she bought a Safa Tempo, at first not intending to drive it herself but after meeting other operators, changed her mind. She failed the licence test a few times, but got one eventually.
For Shrestha, Ghising and Moktan, operating electric three-wheelers has been a path to financial independence, supporting their families, and putting children through school.
“We are self-sufficient business operators,” says Ghising proudly.
Adds Moktan, “We did not get the chance to be educated, and that is always a regret. But we have worked hard to educate our children.”
Shrestha points to the jewellery Ghising is wearing, and laughs, “She bought that driving a Safa Tempo.”
Read also: Nepal backs EVs to boost hydro-electrivity uptake, Nepali Times
Other women Safa Tempo drivers have moved on. Chanmaya Tamang drove three-wheelers in Kathmandu for ten years, and now owns a car in which she gives driving lessons for women.
It has not been easy for the women drivers. Women drivers are frequently harassed by traffic police and face constant discrimination.
“Imagine, the police still ask us why we are out on the roads instead of at home cooking,” says Tamang. “If we attempt to talk back, they issue a fine on the spot.”
Shrestha says she has been sexually harassed as well. Policemen often pull her over and initiate unwanted conversation. “They ask for our phone numbers, and if we refuse they give us tickets. Some women have actually quit driving because of this.”
Meanwhile, the response from the passengers is markedly different, many are still surprised to find women behind the wheels. Some express their respect and appreciation when they get off at their stops, others do not ask for change or even pay five times the fare amount.
“We know we have worked very hard, and we don’t need validation,” says Moktan. “But it still feels good to get such responses every once in a while.”
Because they operate electric vehicles, these female entrepreneurs are also helping Nepal reduce fossil fuel use and meet its goal of net-zero emissions.
Sonika Manandhar’s fin-tech company Aloi has been helping Safa Tempo entrepreneurs get affordable financing since 2018, and says the 700 electric three-wheelers are an important component of Kathmandu Valley’s public transport network, and have contributed to reducing Nepal’s climate impact in the past 30 years.
“I call them climate ninjas,” Manandhar says.
Safa Tempos started out in 1993 as a USAID project to convert polluting diesel Vikram three-wheelers into battery powered ones.
Safa’s lithium-ion batteries need to be replaced every five years, while the lead-acid batteries are replaced every six months. At present, there are more than 700 Safa Tempos in Kathmandu Valley.
But the government’s ban on 20-year old vehicles extends to the Safa tempos too. Even though operators successfully lobbied to extend it to 30 years, they have to constantly convince bureaucrats about the utility of these vehicles.
Safe Tempos have also dissuaded many Nepali women from migrating overseas for work by providing a well-paying alternative job at home.
“We earn as much here comfortably, and double that if we own our own vehicle,” says Shrestha.
The chat with this reporter is over, and the women get out of the office into the sun and talk business for a while.
Then Saraswati Moktan gets into Chanmaya Tamang’s Maruti. They say goodbye and leave, Tamang’s toddler seated in Moktan’s lap. Indra Maya Shrestha and Sunshang Ghising make their way to a teashop on their Shivaratri off day.
Read also: Nepal goes electric, but conditions apply, Ramesh Kumar