Two decades of debate on female migration

A look back at how we have come back full circle in 20 years about the ban on migration. Or maybe we never left.

When we last wrote about Nepal’s Department of Immigration’s proposal requiring women under 40 years to obtain permission letters from family members and the local ward, it was heavily resisted.

The fights, those before us had to pick to change the status quo on female emigration are no different than the present. The recent proposal was a chilling reminder that we are just going around in circles.

Over the last two decades since this newspaper started covering the issue, the stories we tell are all the same: women bypassing restrictive policies due to desperation or aspiration, the risks that women are willing to take for a better shot at life for themselves and their families.

The rationale for the Department of Immigration’s reactionary proposal showed that the response to exploitation and abuse of female migrants has not moved beyond knee-jerk bans and travel restrictions.

Going back through the Nepali Times archive to find references to the state trying to keep Nepali women tied up at home reveals the complexities of the issue:

In the very first #0 prototype edition of this paper Jasmine Rajbhandary in her Women to Women column wrote about how female immigration officials at Kathmandu airport also extort female passengers: ‘I would dare to say that almost every female in Nepal at some point or another has felt unsafe, insecure or uncomfortable in her surroundings and those in it.’

In its 19 October 2001 issue, Nepali Times conducted an online reader poll on whether the government should lift restrictions on Nepali women going to the Gulf to work. Nearly 1,000 people responded, with over 60% saying yes. It showed that this has always been a contentious issue. Some of the responses are quite revealing (see screenshot).

In an interview, Renu Rajbhandari of the Women’s Rehabilitation Center (WOREC) in March 2002, points to bills on abortion and domestic violence that would impact women: ‘The patriarchal notion of the state is strongly evident in the bill(s).”

In the 10 January 2003 edition, Nepali Times reporter Hemlata Rai explained how the high profile suicide of Kani Sherpa in 1998 after being sexually abused by her Kuwait-based employer led to the ban of women going to the Gulf for foreign employment. But even then, there was a realisation that the ban was not serving its purpose. She quotes Binda Pandey of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT): “It is the government's obligation to guarantee safety of its citizens. Preventing women from foreign employment is violating women's basic human rights to conceal its own weaknesses.”

In 30 July 2004, reporter J B Pun Magar in an article titled ‘Manpower Agencies and Women’s Power’ showed how abuse abroad had not deterred Nepali women from migrating for household work in the Gulf. He quotes Maya GC who was exploited and sexually abused but was still migrating for work in Qatar: "I know it may happen again, but look at the situation in our country".

Another woman named Anita from Palpa who managed to escape from an abusive employer in Kuwait, said in a taped message to her family how she had been duped by an acquaintance from the village. (See screenshot)

In an op-ed published in the 20 July 2007 edition of Nepali Times, Nischal Nath Pandey points out how Nepali embassies abroad were poorly equipped and staffed, and budget was scarce to attend to labour matters.

In 31 October 2008, reporter Dewan Rai told the story of Kopila Rai who suffered abuse as a caregiver in Israel. She asks, “We only talk about the government benefits from the money that migrant workers send home, but at what cost?”

In another report in 2009, Rai points out that the ban on domestic workers has not improved the situation of women workers abroad. Contrary to the more common India route to bypass the ban, he writes about Sabina who submitted fake documents saying she will be working in a hotel so she could fly out.

In an interview with Nepali Times in the 3 December 2010 issue, Caroline O’Reilly of the ILO is asked if there is a link between migrant workers and human trafficking. She replies, “Absolutely, especially when migrant workers don’t go through official channels, they are vulnerable to forced labour.”

An editorial in the 28 October 2011 edition of Nepali Times mentioned the story of Dechen Doma Sherpa who recorded an immigration official at Kathmandu airport asking her for a bribe even when she had the required paperwork. The editorial called for a crackdown on exploitation by immigration officials, reducing recruitment costs, and skills training to make migration more rewarding.

In an op-ed titled Womanpower in the 23 March 2012 issue of the paper, Rubeena Mahato argues that despite the ban being lifted with the passing of the Foreign Employment Act 2007, women continued to travel via illegal routes as the perception of the ban persisted. She reported that 3,200 Nepali women had been intercepted at New Delhi Airport after the Nepal government asked Indian officials to stop Nepali women going to the Gulf on visit visas.

‘Even Slaves are Treated Better’ was the title of a joint report by Sushila Budathoki and Mina Sharma in the issue of 8 June 2012 about how lifting the ban on female workers was not enough. Legalising individual contracts for domestic workers to directly arrange their employment with foreign employers put women at risk while giving recruiters a free pass to game the system, and avoid being identified or implicated in case of abuse.

The story began with four heart-wrenching stories of Nepali women who were sexually abused, and had endured physical torture at the hands of their Nepali recruiters and employers in the Gulf.

In 13 September 2013 Brikuti Rai and Sunir Pandey reported in Nepali Times about Sita, a Saudi returnee, who was robbed and raped by officials at Kathmandu airport. While Parshuram Basnet and Somnath Khanal got one year jail sentence, immigration section officers Tikaram Pokharel and Ram Prasad Koirala were acquitted.

Rojita Adhikary reported in the 6 June 2014 issue of Nepali Times about how women workers are doubly vulnerable because they are not just easy prey to recruiters and abusive employers, but also to sexual predators. She related the experience of Dilmaya who was a victim of domestic abuse, who left for overseas work only to land an employer in Qatar who raped her. She returned to Nepal in 2011 with a baby. She also related shocking stories of Maya in Kuwait and Hema in Saudi Arabia who were raped, abused, and returned with health issues to an unwelcoming society.

In an op-ed in the 16 October 2015 issue, Sangita Thebe-Limbu argued that provisions on mothers’ citizenship to her children in the new Constitution laid bare misogynistic and patriarchal values hiding behind nationalism. She said this put the children of trafficked women, migrant women workers and other transient women whose offspring are born outside Nepal in a disadvantaged position.

In the 2 September 2016 issue, Om Astha Rai reported on how trafficking rings that sold uneducated and poor Nepali girls into Indian brothels, had moved on to the Gulf and even East African countries. The 2015 earthquake made girls more vulnerable to trafficking because they lost homes and parents.  

In a report titled ‘Never Heard from Again’ in the 27 January 2017 issue, Rai reported on missing Nepali migrants who disappeared abroad, mostly women who are trafficked to the Gulf via India to work as housemaids. He interviewed relatives of women like Parbati Karki who disappeared in Saudi Arabia, and Sita Rai who was travelling to Kuwait via India.

In 27 April 2018, I reported from Lebanon on Nepali domestic workers who were desperate to come home to visit family. They were afraid the ban on female household workers would mean they would not be able to return to their jobs. We got insights from Lebanese employers who described their relationship with their Nepali employees who after years, had become like family.

In 2019, Nepali Times reported on the government decision to allow current domestic workers abroad to visit family members and return to their jobs, a welcome move as it was right before Dasain.

In the 16 September 2020 issue of this paper, Marty Logan and I reported on Lilamaya Dhimal, a Nepali woman who was rescued from Saudi Arabia after 12 years of abuse by her employer. It was a combination of luck and proactive embassy support that rescued her from an employer she described as a “monster”.

It was also a year when the pandemic revealed pre-existing fault lines of a ‘protection’-oriented migration policy as women, especially those who had bypassed the ban, were disproportionately impacted while abroad and during repatriation.

It is 2021. The year began with a controversial proposal by the Immigration Department to required women below 40 to have written permission from male members of the family and ward officials before she can travel. News of the proposal sparked outrage, and street protests. In my report on the issue in the 11 February edition of Nepali Times I traced the history of restrictive immigration policies and reported on the protests by frustrated Nepalis resisting such patriarchal laws.

In the story, women reported feeling harassed by the Immigration Officials with or without the ban or the restrictions, just like it was reported in the very first edition of this paper in 21 years ago.

We are back to square one. Or perhaps we never left.

To be sure, the stories of abuse have also persisted and trafficking under the guise of foreign employment is rampant. It is necessary to strengthen anti-trafficking laws, including amendment to laws as per the Palermo Protocol that Nepal ratified last year.

But it is also important to allow safe employment opportunities for women via legal channels. The causes of poverty and desperation run deep, and the restrictive rules, even if well-intentioned, are counterproductive because they have only made the roles of agents and their services more relevant. In many cases where the woman is not abused during the journey, or lands a good employer, the agent is viewed as a hero, a facilitator, and not a criminal.

Even as the government proposed restrictions on visit visas for women flying to the Gulf and African countries, came news of 26 young women languishing in jails in Sri Lanka. They were headed to the Gulf via India. Recruiting agents are creative and stay one step ahead of new rules, finding increasingly circuitous routes. Since Nepali women who travelled overland to India were stopped from flying from New Delhi and Mumbai to the Gulf, they started taking them to Colombo.

The impact of the pandemic on Nepali families, and the rising demand in the care economy abroad, means greater push factors. Interceptions viewed as a success by the government are often seen as just ‘bad luck’ by migrants. This small selection of Nepali Times reports from the past 20 years shows that there needs to be an honest evaluation of the unintended, but anticipated, consequences of policies restricting travel for women.

On International Women’s Day on 8 March, there will be many references to women holding up half the sky. However, rules that clip the wings of women have thwarted a more vibrant discourse on unleashing the full potential of Nepali women in nation building.

How can we deliberate on labour agreements, skills training, stronger worker provisions, better financed and staffed Nepali embassies, and rewarding alternates at home and abroad, when the fundamental right to movement sucks up all the attention?

Upasana Khadka writes this column Labour Mobility every month in Nepali Times analysing trends affecting Nepal’s workers abroad. The selected content in this article can be accessed through the site search function on

Upasana Khadka