Himani Tharu may be the first female elephant mahout serving in Nepal’s national parks, but her story is hardly inspirational.
Instead, it exposes a system that is unable to welcome gender inclusivity. She faces double discrimination: first because she is a woman and second for belonging to an indigenous community.
Harassed by her lower-level co-workers, and ignored by senior staff, Himani says she hopes no one will follow in her footsteps and become a female mahout.
“I wouldn’t wish this much suffering upon anyone,” she says.
Born on the outskirts of the Bardia National Park, Himani Tharu, 27, grew up close to elephant sanctuaries, and was familiar with both elephants and the people who cared for them.
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Despite that, Himani did not really want to become a mahout. She had plans to graduate from school and get a regular office job. But ten years ago, the Public Service Commission put out a notice for the position of a female mahout, and her family encouraged her to apply because it supposed to be a stable government job.
Himani struggled to keep up with the demands of her new profession: she had to learn to take care of elephants, collect grass, take the elephants out to graze, constantly feed them, and clean up after them. She was also required to ride the elephants on the Nepal Army’s jungle patrols.
She loved the elephants, especially a baby one, and made friends with them. It was her human co-workers who were unhelpful, disrespectful and ordered her around.
“Sometimes they would leave me alone in the middle of the jungle and I would get lost. Other times they would lead my elephant into the river and leave it there,” she says.
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As the only female among 30 mahouts at the national park, she is often targetted for bullying and harassment, but there is no one she could talk to because of the park’s hierarchy.
“Had there been about three or four of us women, they would not have dared misbehave but I am the only woman,” says Himani, recalling how her colleagues would deliberately make loud obscene conversations when she was around. When she told them to stop, they scolded her instead.
Himani faced constant attacks on her character and integrity. Every time she even spoke to a fellow-mahout or asked for help from a male co-worker, she would subject to vicious teasing.
“One of the senior male mahouts used to help me, but after other men in the camp started associating us he was intimidated and stopped coming near me,” says Himani.
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All complaints to senior officers at the camp were ignored, and Himani felt there was no point reporting her colleagues anymore when they engaged in lewd conversation when she was around.
The whole system is gender-blind. The elephant camp does not have separate quarters for women, and she has to sleep in a dorm with 15 other men. It is worse when she had to go on overnight jungle patrols in Bardia National Park.
Fed up with the treatment and frustrated with her job, Himani mustered the courage to speak frankly to a journalist. She said she had packed up to quit her job many times, but was always persuaded by her relatives and friends to stick it out.
She says: “I am determined to find another job, and finally resign during this lockdown. I have put up with everything for so long, I don’t know how long I can take this.”
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