Time to protect women at risk  

The prime minister’s conditional offer to open the drayangs with proposed changes to some unhealthy practices is a welcome move. The need for a healthier relationship between performers and drayang customers in Covid times gives Bhutan the opportunity to uplift an entertainment occupation that has been under scrutiny in recent years.

Individuals and organisations that have studied the drayang operations point out that women working in drayangs are subjected to repeated sexual harassment especially when they have to solicit for requests of songs and dances, a monetary collection that go towards their earnings and is revenue for the drayang. The solicitation of requests increases vulnerability as it emphasises the women’s unequal relationship with customers.

A 2017 situational analysis of drayang employees in Thimphu, Paro and Phuentsholing (National Commission for Women and Children study) show that 75 percent or three quarters of female employees reported that they suffer high risks of sexual harassment and discrimination as a conequence of work.

More than two thirds (65.6 percent) of the employees in the study reported having been harassed or abused verbally, physically, sexually, or psychologically at the workplace in the 12 months prior to the survey.  Verbal abuse is common and one in four persons (24.8%) surveyed had experienced sexual abuse at work.

The study took place in 27 drayangs with 302 female employees; more than half the respondents were 23 years and below. Drayangs hire youth from the age of 18. The study confirms that women in the 18-24 age group are more likely to be targets of harassment ( 29 percent of respondents) compared to employees in other age groups. The younger performers are likely to be unable to ward off customer persistence nor are they able to understand and hold up against the unequal power relationships that emerge.

Findings show that 78.1percent of employees surveyed face stigmatisation and discrimination. Many have difficulties finding accomodation as employees of drayangs.

Nearly eight out of every ten persons surveyed (79.3 percent) acknowledged that a major factor of workplace harassment takes place when requesting customers to sponsor a song or dance.

Drayang employees said they adopt what they call ‘pleasing gestures’ like sitting on the laps of customers, and even allowing customers to fondle them to get requests. The study reveal that more than half the respondents (66.2 percent) do not have a regular monthly salary, but are paid from an agreed percentage share of the total requests collected over a period of a week or month. It’s these practices that stigmatise drayangs as places of ill-repute.

Despite the clear findings of vulnerabilities amongst drayang employees, no tangible action has been taken to address these concerns. Thanks to Covid, we can now reduce the harassments by introducing new rules that could include requiring every drayang patron to pay a cover charge for performances.

The government directive to change the modus operandi of drayangs will help the drayang owners, performers, even the customers. It’ll remove the cause for harassments, improve the working conditions, and reset the way people stereotype performers as being sex workers, thus elevating the entire entertainment profession in Bhutan. It’ll ensure that fair wages are paid to drayang employees. Evidence available makes it imperative that Bhutan changes the business model of drayangs to protect women working there.

The NCWC study recommends that the drayang’s request system must change as it is a main ‘entry point’ for sexual exploitation and harassment at the workplace. The study made other recommendations including regular monitoring, and building a more condusive environment in drayangs.

Bhutan has to think beyond old models and promote more professional entertainment. Like businesses battling Covid the world over, drayang owners must concede to the change to survive for the long-term.

While we may visit drayangs, not many of us would want our family members to work there. A concerned mother who visited a drayang her friend owned concluded that drayangs exploit Bhutanese women. She advised the owner to keep the place open only if he agreed to having his own daughter or sister to work there.

There is also the view that drayangs provide employment for a section of society. But all evidences point to an urgent need to reform the drayang.

The government’s directive to drayangs to remove personal requests is an imperative that we cannot ignore in Covid times where physical distancing is a must. Over and above health concerns, the situation calls for ensuring the safety of women employees and fair work conditions.

Drayang owners and the drayang association can use this opportunity to reform the operations. What greater meaning is there than to work collectively on improving the employment conditions and securing the well-being of people working in drayangs?

This is the beginning of a new start for drayangs in Bhutan to create a space where talent, clean fun and entertainment can thrive.


Contributed by 

 SS Pek-Dorji

Thimphu resident