In 1998, the government enforced a ban on Nepali women going to the Gulf for work after news of Kani Sherpa's death in Kuwait following abuse by employers got widespread media attention.
The decision was supposed to protect women and ensure that such tragedies did not happen again. But the ban only helped to make matters worse: more and more women started going to the Gulf through illegal channels, using forged documents and risking even more exploitation at the hands of agents and employers.
After the Foreign Employment Act 2007 was passed, the ban has officially been lifted, and there are no restrictions on women migrant workers going abroad. But the perception of a ban remains, and this has led many women to continue using illegal routes. The Department of Labour estimates there are now more than 200,000 Nepali women working in the Gulf of which only 4 per cent have legal work permits in those countries.
"Brokers are taking advantage of the information gap and are trafficking women to the Gulf through visit visas," Saru Joshi Shrestha of UN Women told Nepali Times. More than 3,200 Nepali women have been intercepted at New Delhi Airport in the last few months after the government requested Indian authorities to stop Nepali women transiting there to go to the Gulf on visitor visas. Immigration officials at New Delhi airport told Nepali Times they intercept up to five Nepali women every day on forged passports or visas.Â
The government has a directive for sending domestic workers to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE to make employers more accountable and reduce abuse. But destinations such as Hong Kong and Lebanon are still illegal, and activists want female labour attaches in countries where there are more than 1,000 Nepali women working.
"It's not that the government hasn't done anything to protect migrant workers, but the efforts are small compared to the scale of the problem," says Padma Mathema of the National Human Rights Commission.
The agency, Pourakhi, set up by returning Nepali women trained 750 women in organic farming, candle making and handicraft so that they don't have to go back and face abuse. Many are now running small businesses.Â Most Nepali women say they would stay in Nepal if they could earn just Rs 6,000 more per month, so the long-term solution to migration would be to create jobs within Nepal.
Says Pourakhi's founder, Bijaya Rai: "It is despair that forces women to migrate for work. We should be able to create an environment where migration is a choice and not a compulsion."
To hell and back,
Nepali women workers are exploited at home and suffer horrific abuse abroad, but a woman minister sacks an official trying to clean up the Labour Department
Helping workers abroad
Himal Media's roundtable discussion on the challenges and issues of migrant labour