Nepali women flee abuse for overseas work

Foreign employment gives survivors of domestic violence an escape route to independence and dignity

Photo: GOPEN RAI

Muna Acharya was married off by her family when she was barely 14 to a man who physically and emotionally abused her for years. 

He beat her, threw her out of the house in the middle of the night, and constantly hurled insults. Muna’s own family was no help. After 19 long years of this, she had enough and left her husband.  

“It hurts me to think about all those years of trauma, I don’t know how I could bear it for so long,” says Muna who became a migrant worker in Malaysia in 2010. 

It was an escape from abuse, but also a chance to earn enough to support her two children who were 16 and 12 at the time in Jhapa. 

“Far away from Nepal, I could breathe easy for the first time in my life,” recalls Acharya who was encouraged to seek foreign employment by her relative Gita Katuwal, who had also gone to Malaysia a year before to escape harrowing circumstances at home.

Like Muna, Gita was abused so severely by her husband that she would often have to ask her family and neighbours to cover up the dark bruises on her skin. 

“It was not as easy to get a divorce back then as it is now. Usually the village elders and police would mediate and force reconciliation with the husband,” Gita recalls. “They would behave themselves for a few days and the beatings would start again.”  

Being homemakers meant that both Muna and Gita did not have the time and opportunity to get jobs that would give them financial independence. Moreover, their own families, neighbours would refuse to get involved.  

When it became clear that they would not get help from anyone at home, both women saw no other way out than to opt for self-imposed exile from Nepal.  

Gita ultimately ended up spending 13 years in Malaysia, and says it turned her life around, giving her confidence and independence as well as allowed her to give her children a secure life. 

“I could not make my children happy when I stayed with them, but I was able to give them the things they deserved while being far from them,” she says. “Going abroad gave me my life back.”

There are many Nepali women like Muna and Gita who survived domestic violence and spousal abuse and neglect, and unable to bear it any longer, have abandoned not just their abusive households but also their own country. Foreign employment has empowered the women, giving them financial independence and self-respect.

Back from Malaysia, Muna Acharya has invested her savings in a convenience store. “Foreign employment has given me everything. I no longer have to worry about where my next meal is going to come from, and I don't have to live in constant fear of physical abuse,” she says.

Buddha Maya Limbu’s abusive husband left her 15 years ago when she was three months pregnant. As the reality of raising a child on her own sank in, Buddha Maya promised herself she would not let her child’s life be touched by the pain and hardship that she herself had experienced.  

Over the next couple of years, Buddha Maya worked first at a clothing facility that eventually went under, and then raised chicken until they all died in a bird flu epidemic.  

Realising that her only hope was to find work abroad, Buddha Maya left her home in Jhapa for Kuwait in 2009, leaving her two-year-old son in the care of her parents. She returned to Nepal three years later, immediately began to pay off the interest on loans and invested the rest on a property.   

Female migrants NT
(Clockwise) Muna Acharya, Gita Katuwal, Kumari Chemjong, and Buddha Maya Limbu. Photos: SUJATA DHUNGANA

She left Nepal once again in 2014, this time for Malaysia. By the time she returned in 2021, she had wired enough money back home to send her son to school, and to build a house.

“Now I don’t have to worry about renting rooms again,” iy Maya says, “I built this house with my own money. It has a strong foundation, and so does my son because of the education I could give him.”

Her mother Ranmaya is overjoyed at her daughter’s success and that Buddha Maya has bigger dreams to get her son recruited into the British Army. 

“My daughter means everything to me,” says Ranmaya. “But how can I stop her from leaving again when I have seen the life she has built by going abroad?”

Kumari Chemjong had dreamt of becoming a dance instructor ever since she was a schoolgirl, never missing a dance event in the village. “My grandmother always told me that dancing was not a job,” she says. “It took me many years to understand what she meant.”

Kumari got married, and it was not easy. She left behind her toddler son and escaped to Kuwait in 2017 via backchannel routes through India because female migrant workers were banned from going abroad at the time because of reports of abuse by employers overseas.

“I knew I should not have gone illegally,” Kumari admits, “but there were countless reasons for me to escape from troubles at home.” 

For two years in Kuwait she cleaned houses, and this made her realise the value of work, taught her the importance of being with family and loved ones, and made her realise her attachment to Nepal.  

“I understand why Nepali migrant workers feel the need to kiss the ground when they get off the plane at Kathmandu airport,” she says.

Now back home in Jhapa, Kumari has finally fulfilled her childhood dream and teaches dance at two private schools in Haldibari. She also makes and sells beaded necklaces, and has written and recorded two gazals.

She is also the vice president of the Jhapa chapter of the Center for the Protection of Migrant Workers’ Rights, and says that women tend to save more and send more money home than men. Safe working conditions and financial literacy are crucial for women seeking foreign employment, she adds.

“Foreign employment has helped women who experience domestic violence, abuse, ostracisation, and economic deprivation to turn their own and their children’s lives for the better,” says activist Renu Adhikari. “The remittance they send is also contributing to Nepal’s economy.”

But even if women overcome the stigma of abandoning their families to go abroad, many women who end up working as household help face abuse and unsafe working conditions from employers overseas as well. Domestic abuse is often replaced by overseas abuse.  

Gita Katuwal was forced to leave her home and country to escape her abusive husband and in-laws, but says overseas migration is an opportunity for Nepali women.

“People who didn’t believe I would make it in life now ask to borrow money from me,” she says. “I am now able to speak my mind confidently in my community without fear or doubt that my opinions matter.” 

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