Female electrical maintenance worker defies convention on a job fixing transmission lines
Dhak Kumari Poudel tightens her blue helmet, fastens her safety harness, and wrench in hand, climbs the 8m ladder up a transmission pole in Bhaktapur.
A crowd forms nearby to watch. Passing motorcyclists stop to stare at her high above the ground as if it is a free roadside circus with a woman performing a high wire act.
“It is really surprising to see a woman climb up poles to do electrical maintenance work,” marvels someone in the crowd to no one in particular. Another onlooker nearby agrees: “I had only ever seen men do this kind of work before.”
Poudel can hear some of these comments, but has become used to it in the 16 years that she has been working as an electrical maintainance worker with the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA).
Her everyday schedule involves climbing up to the transmission lines to disconnect those pilfering electricity with hooks, installing new meters, or increasing the capacity of transmission lines.
People will keep looking up and talking, I have stopped paying attention,” says the 56-year-old grandmother, who is currently with the NEA’s Bhaktapur Distribution Centre. “It is just another job for me, like anything else.”
Poudel was married at 22 and had two boys by the time she turned 25. Her husband worked in the tourism sector in Bhaktapur, and she would often travel from their home in Dolakha to visit him in the city.
During one such trip in 2007, Poudel participated in a vocational training class on electrical wiring. She got a job at the Thimi division of the NEA connecting houses to electricity.
Some time later, her boss sent Poudel to attend additional ‘A’ and ‘B’ level courses at the Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training (CTEVT). Poudel was 36, the only woman and most of her classmates were half her age.
“I had to work doubly as hard as the others,” recalls Poudel, who completed the course in two years and returned to the field. Today, 16 years later, she has earned a reputation among peers as a confident and intrepid transmission line worker.
She has got NEA’s Best Employee award twice, but even then some men cannot resist passing snide remarks that as a woman she should not be climbing transmission towers.
“It is this attitude that stops many Nepali women from doing what they are capable of, and moving up in life,” says Poudel.
When Nepal was facing up to 18 hours of power cuts a day, Poudel like other employees of the NEA, was at the receiving end of constant disparaging remarks, and even verbal abuse from consumers. She remembers sometimes hiding her identity to do her job.
Once, she had to run for her life after a man who was caught red-handed stealing electricity, saw Poudel cut off the power supply to his house and chased her down the street. Bhaktapur district used to have the highest pilferage rate for electricity in Nepal.
Another homeowner threatened to beat her to death with a metal rod after she tried to stop him from stealing electricity.
Even so, Poudel is determined to continue on the job to the best of her ability until her retirement in two years. She has no regrets and does not envy colleagues who have desk jobs. Working in the field has given her more freedom and confidence.
Having fixed the transmission line, Dhak Kumari Poudel is back on the ground, and taking off her gloves. She tells us: “Many women have been discouraged from doing this sort of work because of society’s perception that we are weak. Let us show everyone what we are capable of.”