Maoists force premier woman industrialist to quit Nepal
Mar 7, 2007 - 11:15:11 AM

Kathmandu, March 7 - Nepal marks International Women's Day Thursday with a series of programmes, rallies and a holiday for women employees, but Laxmi Sharma, the only woman to own a film studio in the country, will not be part of the celebrations.

The illiterate Nepali woman, who was forced by poverty to start work at the age of five and became an industrialist through sheer grit, is saying adieu to Nepal due to the continuing political turmoil in the nation and increasing strong-arm tactics by the Maoists.

Laxmi, who is also the founder of Laxmi Wood Craft Udyog, exporters of wood, bone and horn buttons, one of the first industries to be started in Nepal by a woman from the grassroots, is busy shifting her factory to Jaipur in western India after Maoist guerrillas locked up the factory and studio gates nearly a month ago.

'I am not a doormat,' says the petite mother of three, her eyes flashing. 'I fight back. No one in Nepal lifted a hand to help me. Still, I am ready to fight my own battle.'

Her first fight began at the age of 13 when her parents married her off to someone who already had a wife.

'I went to school for only three days,' says the 58-year-old. 'Then when I was five, my father, who worked in the royal palace, put me in the service of the then king Tribhuvan's youngest sister. By the time I was 15, I had two daughters.'

Laxmi says she left her husband after being abused by his mistress and returned to her parents with her three daughters.

To support them, she started working as a maid for western diplomats, graduating from a cleaning woman to head cook.

Her first break came when her American employer made it possible for her to attend a series of courses in India.

She studied leather technology in Santiniketan, woodcraft and how machines worked in Varanasi and decided to start her own business after returning to Kathmandu.

'But I had no money,' she says. 'My stepmother lent me money at 36 percent interest and I bought a tempo - to become Nepal's first woman public vehicle driver.'

With the money she saved, she began her button business. Her former employees helped to get contracts from abroad and today, she exports mainly to the US, Germany and Australia.

Three years ago, inspired by a visit to Hollywood, she opened the Birendra Universal Studio in Kathmandu.

'When the Maoist insurgency started, Maoists would pressure us for donations,' she says. 'Now they have started pressuring me to allow them entry in my ventures. They think, ah, she earns dollars. They never think of the sweat that lies behind it.'

About a month ago, the Maoist trade union forcibly padlocked the single gate that leads both to the factory and the studio.

On an average, the studio is booked every day of the month, sometimes hired by two different units on the same day.

Laxmi says she has reached the end of her tether.

'I am an exporter,' she says. 'I have an exacting deadline. If I don't deliver, my order goes to someone else.

'It is becoming impossible to do business in Nepal.'

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