Of the total number of women officially migrating for work every year to third world countries other than India, women make up 11 percent. Newspaper reports of women flying to Kuwait and other Gulf destinations via India may mean that the numbers may be much higher.
Nevertheless, remittances by female workers probably make up 15 percent of the total $1.5 billion that are sent home by Nepal's overseas workers. Adding the figures for India as well as the evidence that women tend to save more than male co-workers suggests that the money Nepali women send home is even higher.
Most women going for foreign employment are from rural areas, they have less than 10 years of schooling, they are in the 20-40 age bracket and they are mostly from marginalised ethnic groups. Most work as domestics, but there is also an increasing number of women who are going as care-givers to destinations like Israel.
In September, the government imposed a ban on Nepali women intending to migrate to work in Malaysia and the Gulf. The bans were in response to the requests from Nepali ambassadors in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia who said the women have been vulnerable to exploitation in the hands of employers in the past. Tens of thousands of potential women workers have had to cancel their plans, or are trying to find ways to get around the law.
The ban is problematic for several reasons. The first is that it violates the fundamental right of Nepali women to move freely regardless of gender. The second question is: is the ban a solution at all?
Past experience shows that despite bans, Nepali migrant workers have been flying to Iraq and Afghanistan via India and Bangladesh. Many are in trouble or have either been deported, rescued and flown back home by our embassies. Kuwait has been a major destination for Nepali women who are mostly flown out via New Delhi airport where many are detained every week for having improper passports or forged visas.
A ban would only raise the fees for illegal entry for women to those countries and increase their vulnerability to exploitation by middlemen. The ban was first imposed in 1998 after the death of Kani Sherpa in Saudi Arabia. The ban was lifted in 2007, but has been reimposed now for Malaysia and the Gulf countries.
The paradox is that it was when the ban was in place between 1998-2007 that the highest number of Nepali women went to work as domestics in the Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia alone has 40,000 Nepali women, and nearly all of them flew out via Dhaka or New Delhi. Their departure through Kathmandu airport wouldn't have been possible without an under-the-counter 'facilitation fee'.
Instead of trying to curb this, the government has taken the easy way out and announced a ban?knowing fully well that it will not work. The only people who suffer from the ban will be the women themselves who will now have to pay bigger bribes through their recruiting agents. And when they suffer, they can't even report it to the authorities because they are breaking the law.
The ban on Nepali women migrating to work is ill-conceived, unworkable and will put the women in much more danger. Why doesn't the government just ban poverty, too, so that the women don't have to migrate at all?
Ganesh Gurung is a sociologist and chairperson of National Network for Safe Migration