The government led by the Prime Minister has announced that around 60 Drayangs across the country will not be allowed to reopen if they cannot follow a host of changes or reforms including doing away with the song ‘Request System,’ where girls ask customers to request for songs for a certain amount of money.
In fact, the Prime Minister pledged that if Drayangs decided to close, the government would look at the loans and the accumulated rent and also the rehabilitation of Drayang girls.
Lyonchhen said that this would be one of the elements of his contribution ‘to a decent society or to avoid our society going down the drain.’
On the other hand, is the story of Sangay (name changed) of 25 years’ age who works in a Drayang in Thimphu.
Sangay lost her mother at an early age and the remaining family of her father and younger sister had tough time making ends meet. It was especially tough when they moved to an expensive city like Thimphu to make a life for themselves.
Sangay took on the burden of the family and did not go to school, but she took up various odd jobs working in show rooms or in hotels, but Sangay said the pay was minimal and not enough to support her family or pay rent.
She desperately looked high and low for any jobs that would help sustain her father and younger sister in Thimphu, but nothing paid close to what they needed for rent and food.
Then out of sheer desperation she at the young age of 17 joined a Drayang by lying that she was 18 plus. Sangay said given her youth and inexperience the Drayang she first joined promised her 10,000 per month basic pay and a 50 percent share of the request songs.
She said she made around Nu 34,000 in request songs in that month, but the Drayang owner fooled her and paid her only 6,000 at the end of the month.
She said she left that Drayang and joined a better one where she got her basic pay and the promised 50 percent of the request songs.
Lyonchhen had said that when he talked to some Drayang girls who came to his office he found that they made Nu 40,000 to Nu 60,000 on an average.
Sangay said that on an average she makes around Nu 20,000 to Nu 25,000 a month including her basic pay and the 50% of the request amount. She, however, said there are also girls who just make 6,000 or 7,000 if they are not confident and lack the musical and dance skills.
She said there are those who make much more, but it is all about talent.
This amount has been enough to support her family, pay rent and not depend on others for handouts or support.
Sangay says she has reached a stage where it is nearing time for her to exit the industry. Sangay has been taking Non Formal Education classes for the last few years to make up for her lack of education.
Sangay is, however, grateful to the real life skills she got in her drayang. She said that her work there has given her confidence in herself, ability to communicate better, deal with different types of people and read the mood of people. Skills she is sure will help her in future business endeavors beyond the Drayang.
Lyonchhen in his recent remarks said, “Now is this is the only avenue for our ladies entering into the ‘trade’ or not -it is not so. There are a lot of other avenues that is dragging or pulling or pushing some girls into that business. Drayang is definitely one of them.”
The Prime Minister is alluding to the popular perception that the Drayangs are somehow linked to the sex-trade.
Here Sangay disagreed saying that the majority of the Drayang girls make their income based on their talent of singing and dancing.
“A lot of the Drayang girls are mothers with children, married women and younger ones with a committed boyfriend and so they will not do this as they will not want to be unfaithful to their partners or stigmatize their children. There may be a very few or who do this, but then the rest of us get tagged along unfairly,” said Sangay.
Sangay asked why the government is not taking a similar moral stance with bars, discos and karaoke where similar or worse things happen.
She said in that case the government should also look into its own offices where there are stories of young female staff being sexually exploited by senior male bosses.
Another popular image is of Drayang girls being exploited and harassed, especially while asking for request songs.
The Prime Minister himself talked about this with girls getting physically close to clients while asking for the songs.
Here again, Sangay said that in most cases girls approached the customers only verbally, but she admitted that there are a few who are crazy about money and cross that line while asking for requests.
Sangay said that sometimes depending on the customer she may engage in some flirty talk but this is about it and she depends solely on her musical and dance talent to pull in the money.
Sangay instead talked about another reality of Drayangs which she said people don’t talk about. She said that Drayangs financially empower the girls.
“People talk about us being exploited, but I supported my husband for four years when he did not have a job and similarly I know many other Drayang girls who support their unemployed husbands and boyfriends. People say Drayang girls are sponsored but the reality is that many Drayang girls spend money to support their male counterparts instead,” she said.
Sangay said the Drayangs also provide an important public service because she found that the majority of people coming to Drayangs are coming there with frustrations or to blow off some steam.
She said she knows how to uplift the mood of such people by talking to them and making them feel good about themselves, and they are usually happy when they leave the place. Sangay wonders what would happen to those men if they do not have a place to blow off some steam.
Recounting her own experience, Sangay said she entered this line of work when there was nothing else for her and so she said at a time of high youth unemployment this is one avenue for those without any education and qualification.
She said if Drayangs are forced to shut down then many of the girls will lose their livelihood and be unable to support their children and family and some of the girls maybe pushed into prostitution for real where there are no regulations and protection.
Sangay is not against government intervention and she says there are four ways in which the government can help.
The first is that the government should give training to young girls entering the industry on how to dance and sing and also on dos and don’ts along with other information.
She said the second thing is that there are always a few unscrupulous Drayang owners and so the government can come into to ensure that there is proper and formal pay with a proper agreement and that the girls are not being cheated out of what is their due.
The third point is on the government encouraging Drayangs to have or arrange for late night drops for vehicles as this is where Drayang girls face safety issues. “My main fear while going home after work was being raped and killed by some drug addicts and no one would ever know or care,” said Sangay.
Her final point is that if the government is adamant on doing away with the request system then they should provide government housing for the Drayang girls as rents are the main expense for them and they have to also ensure that the girls get sufficient basic and fixed salary.